With MealPal, a monthly lunch subscription service that launched in New York City last year, users can get entrees including steak, sushi, and pasta all for less than $6 in Manhattan and other participating cities. You can reserve a meal via the map-based menu and the app will reserve a discounted meal. When the designated pick-up time arrives, can skip the line at the restaurant. Unlike Postmates, UberEats, and Seamless, the app requires customers to pick up food. But is the deal as good as it sounds? Here’s what I found:
The basic costs
I opted for “lunch a bunch” for $83.49 with fees. Through a limited time offer (still available) I also received a $50 Amazon coupon for signing up — as well as $50 for each friend I referred to the service. Thus far, I’ve notched up $100 in Amazon credits. To participate in the deal there are a few rules: friends have to sign up with your specific URL, they must choose the full price 20 or 12 meal plan, and they must complete a 30 day cycle. With this program, I had 12 meals to reserve over the next 30 days, averaging $7 per meal, or $2.70 per meal factoring in the Amazon discount.
‘Despite working one avenue block from Times Square in midtown Manhattan, I found myself schlepping 10 or 20 blocks to find the most appetizing dishes, through rain, 90-degree weather, and throngs of tourists.’
This is the smaller plan compared to MealPal’s “Lunch a Lot” plan, which includes 20 meals per 30-day cycle, averaging out to $6.39 per meal. A third plan, “Flex 12 Meal Plan” averages out to $6.99 per meal plus tax and lets users access premium features like ordering in advance and holding onto meal credits for an unlimited period (MealPal meals expire after 30 days if unused). The plans costs vary by taxes and fees. It’s available in Sydney, London and Toronto and, in the U.S., in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Chicago, London, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.
Be prepared to run all over town for lunch
The first day I used MealPal I had a craving for a poke bowl (a raw fish and rice dish) but the closest was 10 blocks from my office at Smilers Food Store. When I arrived, I had to fight through the manic Manhattan lunch rush to the cash register, annoying some customers who likely didn’t know that MealPal allows you to skip the line. Alas, the restaurant was out of poke bowl ingredients, I chose from the buffet at the restaurant’s request. Though I did not get the $13 poke bowl for $7 as I had hoped, I still likely got a better deal on lunch than I would have otherwise.
One big downside: Getting to the best meal options sometimes requires more travel than the average worker can budget for over a short lunch break. Despite working one avenue block from Times Square in midtown Manhattan, I found myself schlepping 10 or 20 blocks to find the most appetizing dishes, through rain, 90-degree weather, and throngs of tourists. A MealPal spokesman said the team is always working to open more kitchens, so soon I could be hiking shorter distances to get poke.
But when it wasn’t sending me to inconvenient locales, the app did alert me to amazing meals in my neighborhood I would have missed otherwise. One day I got a Kung Po chicken bowl from Manting, a Chinese restaurant sandwiched between two Japanese spots I frequent, but had never noticed. Now, it’s one of my regular spots. Another restaurant, Green Symphony, is just a few blocks away and has a number of healthy options I wouldn’t have known about without trying its “New Yorker Bowl” through MealPal.
You have to be quick to get the best meals
Like Groupon, how much value for money you get all depends on availability. If I successfully bought 12 poke bowls a month with MealPal, I would save $73 through the service. But often many of the best, most expensive meals — poke bowls included — sell out quickly after the MealPal “kitchen” opens for reservations at 5 p.m. each day.
Savings vary for remaining meals: a Penne Alla Vodka dish from a nearby bar saved me $4 with MealPal and a Kung-Po chicken dish from a Chinese restaurant down the street that saved me $7 on the menu price. Other dishes saved me less: The falafel bowl from The Hummus & Pita Co. usually runs at $7.50, saving me only 50 cents.
MealPal: expectation versus reality pic.twitter.com/WsOFJdOvBi
— Kari Paul (@kari_paul) July 21, 2017
I often scrolled past dishes I felt should cost far less than $7, like grilled cheese and vegetarian pita wraps. There are even slimmer pickings as the day wears on. Book a meal hours before lunch and you may be stuck with whatever options remain in your area — often vegetarian, cheap, and tiny portions.
And then there’s that perennial problem: Meals don’t always look like they do online, making it disappointing when you pick up what is meant to be a steak dinner and you get something far less extravagant: a smattering of steamed vegetables with a thin steak and half cup of rice — delicious but tiny in portion. So, while my sad $5 Hale and Hearty soup may not be as delicious as a poke bowl, it offers what MealPal doesn’t: Convenience and predictability.