By Lauren Hirsch and Sruthi Shankar
(Reuters) – Blue Apron Holdings Inc began marketing an initial public offering (IPO) on Monday, as an already competitive meal-kit industry faces a potential threat from Amazon.com Inc’s plan to buy Whole Foods Market Inc.
Blue Apron’s up to $510 million IPO will test whether the growth seen by the meal-kit industry’s greatest players will continue to whet investor appetite, even as costs to acquire new customers mount and possible new competitors with established distribution systems appear.
Amazon, which said on Friday it would buy Whole Foods in a $13.7 billion deal, has dallied with both food delivery, through AmazonFresh, and meal kits, which deliver fresh ingredients and recipes to subscribers. Though its AmazonFresh program is more advanced than its meal kits programs, both are still limited to certain metropolitan areas.
“It’s going to take some time to figure out the impact of the acquisition on food delivery, and there are a lot more available ways to raise money when you’re public than when you’re private,” said Kathleen Smith, a manager of IPO-focused exchange-traded funds at Renaissance Capital.
New York-based Blue Apron, named after the uniform that apprentice chefs wear in France, delivers pre-packaged ingredients and recipes to subscribers’ doorsteps for them to prepare meals at home. It is the largest U.S. meal kit delivery service.
The IPO price range it issued on Wednesday implies a valuation of up to $3.2 billion. This equates to roughly three times the company’s sales, and while Blue Apron has no publicly listed peer, some analysts pointed out that was higher than home good company Wayfair Inc’s 1.8 times sales multiple.
Both Wayfair and Blue Apron are quickly growing, unprofitable e-commerce companies considered to be the leader in their respective niches.
Such a comparatively rich valuation indicates that Blue Apron, which was founded five years ago by Matt Salzberg, Ilia Papas and Matt Wadiak, believes its rapid growth will be sufficient to entice investors, despite having never turned a profit.
Blue Apron posted a net loss of $54.9 million last year, even as revenue more than doubled to $795.4 million, as it poured money into logistics and marketing. It was valued at as much as $2 billion in a June 2015 private fundraising round.
The timing of the Blue Apron IPO was not affected by the Whole Foods deal, a source close the company said.
Blue Apron said in a regulatory filing on Monday that it was looking to sell 30 million Class A shares at between $15 to $17 per share, raising as much as $510 million.
The meal-kit industry, which includes HelloFresh in Europe and Chefs Plate in Canada, is attempting to win consumers over from supermarkets by delivering fresh ingredients directly to subscribers without a middle man.
The industry is also becoming more competitive, as companies have struggled to balance marketing costs with attractive prices. Food-delivery startup Maple announced it was shutting down earlier this year about a year after SpoonRocket made a similar announcement.
Amazon first experimented with AmazonFresh in 2007, though has struggled with the same challenge facing all food delivery services: having a wide and cost-efficient distribution network for fresh food.
With Amazon gaining access to Whole Foods’ roughly 400-store footprint, the e-commerce juggernaut would command a distribution network dwarfing that of any meal-kit service. Its automated warehouses rely on robots to manage everything from inventory tracking and replacement, making it a formidable player as it cuts cost.
Blue Apron has fulfillment centers in Richmond, California, Jersey City, New Jersey, and Arlington, Texas and has also worked to increased its automation.
Reuters reported in March that Blue Apron competitor, Sun Basket, which focuses on organic ingredients, has hired banks for an IPO that could come in the second half of the year.
Bessemer Venture Partners, Stripes Group and Fidelity are among Blue Apron’s investors.
Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and Barclays are among the underwriters to its IPO.
(Reporting by Lauren Hirsch in New York and Sruthi Shankar in Bengaluru; Editing by Sai Sachin Ravikumar and Meredith Mazzilli)