$7 Lunches In NYC Do Exist!

MealPal is a monthly subscription service for lunch goers (and now dinner too) in major U.S. cities (New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc.) and now in some international cities like Sydney, Toronto and Paris.

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As a consumer, it works like this:

  • Choose a monthly plan that suits you (i.e. 12 meals/month, on average 3/week); pricing will vary depending on plan
  • Select your desired meal by browsing through participating restaurants’ offerings either the day prior when the “kitchen” opens at 5 pm or on the day of
    • Important note: there is only ONE dish per restaurant per day - no tweaks allowed (i.e. your favourite Indian joint around the corner may have chicken tikka on Mondays but saag paneer on Tuesdays)
  • Reserve meal
  • Select pickup time (15 minute window)
  • Go to restaurant during your selected time, skip the line, indicate you’re picking up your “MealPal”, say your name if asked, then grab lunch and go!

The real pain point it tackles is reducing meal expenses. MealPal subscribers end up paying USD$7 or less per meal ($6.39/meal for the 12-meal plan to be exact!), depending on the plan.

Naturally, this appeals to the millennial market who (1) don’t have time or don’t want to bother making homemade meals to bring to work (2) want to save money (3) want a decent meal that isn’t your basic turkey cheese wrap.

Going to Chop’t for lunch and getting a kale chicken caesar salad (no drink!) will run you around $10. Those $3+ per meal may seem menial but it all adds up! While I was a MealPal subscriber for a year, I ultimately ended up canceling.

Here are my thoughts on what worked and what didn’t:

What Worked

  • Easy-to-use interface with pictures of each meal so you know what to expect
  • Skipping the line (BIG plus!)
  • Good (and constantly growing) selection of restaurants that forces you to explore some spots you wouldn’t have otherwise
    • I discovered a Japanese karaoke bar that made homey Japanese meals near my office that I had no idea existed and a great taqueria that offered rice bowls much better than Chipotle! I even became buddies with the Indian "uncles" at an Indian buffet-style restaurant!
  • Restaurants will typically stick to the same rotation every week so you know what to expect from Restaurant X each day - you end up becoming a regular!
  • Responsive customer service
    • I initially started with a 12 meal/month plan but realised it was too much for me given my fluid schedule so tried to cancel altogether but was convinced to stay on for several more months to a reduced plan that was not advertised (3 meals/month!)
  • If you know in advance that you won’t be able to reserve all X meals for the month, MealPal will donate your meals!

 

What Didn’t

  • If you’re a picky eater or have dietary restrictions, good luck trying to get the restaurants to tweak their order to your liking
  • Hot spots whose dishes get sold out within minutes - even when you think you’re first in line (waiting for the “kitchen” to open at 5 pm), you may still not be able to reserve that dish
  • Meals can be pretty average and portions can be smaller than the typical size the restaurant offers so it may not fill you up as much so you end up buying something else to supplement the meal which results in a bigger expense
  • If you show up late, some restaurants will give you a more recently cooked meal so it remains hot while some will have your name on the bag and literally give you a soggy sandwich.
    • While this isn’t a fault of MealPal at all but what ended up happening to me a lot was I got pulled into meetings or had to push back lunch to an hour or two after my scheduled pick up or not eat lunch at all
  • I’ve always wondered - some restaurants didn’t ask for my name when I said I was picking up my MealPal or only asked for my first name. What if someone already picked "my" meal up? How do they prevent fraud?

 

While I enjoyed MealPal over the last year, I found my work schedule was not flexible enough to accommodate a 15-minute time window to pick up my average no-frills meal. Perhaps it was raining outside or my boss pulled me into a meeting, there were plenty of occasions where I simply couldn’t make it and ended up wasting my meals. On top of that, getting lunch with your colleagues can be bonding moments and not being able to participate in that as frequently made me feel a little left out to be honest! Even though I’m not saving the $3+ extra dollars/meal that I would like, I find other ways to save that by not indulging in a coffee/soda/smoothie breaks. I may give MealPal another shot in the future as they continue to develop but for now, that Chop’t kale caesar salad is here to stay.

What has been your MealPal experience?