IMPORTANT: Unfortunately, CoLab shut down in April 2023 as they were unable to secure further funding to maintain the business. I will retain this review as a record of the CoLab experience. However, please note that it is no longer possible to order from CoLab.
If you’re looking for a similar alternative to CoLab, I recommend looking at Dinner Ladies.
CoLab are pioneering a new type of meal delivery service that spans the gap between takeaways and prepared meals. They promise the convenience of a microwave-ready meal but with the taste and experience to match any restaurant.
Started in 2021 during the Sydney lockdown, originally known as ChefPrep, they’re growing rapidly in Australia partnering with some of the best restaurants around. This CoLab review covers my experience of their service in Sydney.
CoLab Prepared Meals Review
CoLab provide restaurant-quality “ready-to-heat” meals that are incredibly convenient and sourced from some of the best Sydney and Melbourne restaurants. However, pricing is often comparable to eating at the restaurant itself and I’d personally prefer that experience.
Ordering - Website - 7/10
Food - Quality - 10/10
Ordering - Meal Choice - 9/10
Food - Taste - 8/10
Ordering - Delivery - 8/10
Value For Money - 6/10
- Incredible restaurant partnerships.
- Easy to cook dinners.
- Additional artisanal pantry to shop from.
- Pricing is highly variable and very premium.
- Lack of nutritional information.
- Unclear portion sizes.
ChefPrep was founded by Elle and Josh, a Sydney couple, when they spotted the “trend for restaurants to develop/sell their own ready-to-eat meals“. They aimed to build a central marketplace for people to shop for any of these meals in a convenient way. In 2022, they bought a startup specialising in pantry products sourced from restaurants, Co-Lab Pantry. Together, this business has been renamed CoLab and sells both prepared meals and pantry ingredients from a wide range of restaurants.
This review focuses mainly on the original ChefPrep experience of ordering prepared meals.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of ‘prepared meals’ they’re really very simple. Just like picking up a pizza or ready meal from the supermarket, your meals are delivered in a ‘ready to heat’ state. Just throw them in microwave, place on the hob, or chuck in the oven and you’ll have a complete meal ready to go.
Getting started with CoLab
The main premise of CoLab is the ability to order a variety of different meals from a selection of restaurants. Options available include sides and desserts alongside the expected main courses.
The CoLab shop allows you to filter by dietary requirements, brand (restaurant), or meal type.
Alternatively, you can let CoLab do the work of picking meals by choosing one of their bundles. This includes options like:
- Chef’s Choice
- Pizza Party
- Adventure to India
- European Escapade
Whilst I love the idea of bundles, which make CoLab feel more like a meal delivery service than just an online shop, I’m not overly inspired by the bundles they’ve put together. For example, there’s a “Pie In The Sky” bundle where every dish has some form of pastry. Surely nobody needs that many pastry dishes.
There’s also the slightly confusing scenario where most meals are for a single person, but some meals are for 2 people. You’ll need to plan to have a friend round during the week to use up all the food, or a better option might be to save some back for another day if you want it all to yourself.
Meal variety and options
The advantage of shopping with an aggregator like CoLab is the amazing variety provided within a single service. You’re getting access to lots of different meals and cuisines.
At the time of writing, there were over 110 different options available from over 20 different restaurants. That’s a great variety of options, with meals that are suitable for everyone. You might have heard of some of their partner restaurants:
- Bourke St Bakery
- Albi’s Taverna
- Salt Meats Cheese
All of these restaurants are well known for their good food, so I think this list reflects positively on CoLab’s ability to work with some great providers.
There aren’t any nutritional guidelines provided for meals, which can be difficult for anyone trying to track their intake. This is a shame, as even just basic nutritional information can be very helpful.
Special diets and food intolerance
There are, however, only around 20 vegetarian options and fewer vegan options. This is an area I’d expect CoLab to expand into in the future, so it’s worth checking out their current menu if you follow a plant-based diet.
Even with limited options, CoLab have put together a vegetarian bundle that includes dishes like Eggplant Parmigiana and Gnocchi Al Funghi.
If you want a vegan option, you may want to check out our recommended food boxes for vegans instead.
The shop can be filtered easily for those wanting dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian options. However, it’s important to be conscious that these dishes are prepared in restaurant kitchens so CoLab has no way to control the environment each dish is cooked in.
Delivery fees and offers vary heavily depending on your postcode. The default delivery fee is $15, although this does rise to as high as $28.95 in certain areas. At the moment, it seems that anyone outside NSW and VIC will need to pay the higher delivery costs.
If you’re in the Sydney or Melbourne areas, then you’re in luck. CoLab are currently offering free shipping on orders over $150 alongside next-day delivery.
It’s clear that CoLab are focussing their network around Sydney and Melbourne, so hopefully they’ll be able to bring the costs of delivery to other areas down over time.
How much does CoLab cost?
Each restaurant is able to negotiate their own prices with CoLab, so each meal is priced differently. Dinners start at around $15 and go up to $60 for some Wagyu Beef Short Ribs.
One of my main issues with the CoLab website is that they don’t publish the portions available in each dish. You have to assume there’s only one portion and guess based on the price if you think there are two portions.
Most single-portion dishes come in at the $20 mark, which appears to be very close to paying for these dishes in the restaurants themselves. Let’s have a look at comparing some prices to the eat-in cost.
|Restaurant||Dish||CoLab Price||Restaurant Price|
|Little Lagos||Jollof Rice||$19.95||$18|
|Delhi ‘o’ Delhi||Beef Chutney Served with Saffron Pulao||$19.95||$29|
|Pantry by Esca||Shepherds Pie (750g)||$30.95||$21 (700g)|
|Huxtons at Bronte||Chicken and Vegetable Soup||$15||$14|
|Foreign Return||Pepperberry Chicken with Prune Chutney||$16.95||$28|
|Bondi Hardware||Chilli Prawn Linguine||$29.95||$36|
This shows that CoLab can be good value if you select the right meals. However, you’re often paying a small premium over the original restaurant price. It’s also difficult to control for portion sizes, as you may not always receive the same amount of food as in-house dining customers.
Overall, CoLab is definitely not a “cheap” alternative to eating out. You’ll still be paying comparable prices, without the experience of dining at the restaurant itself. Whether this matters to you depends on whether you value experience or convenience more.
My CoLab box
Thanks to the impressive variety of exciting meals available, I selected 7 meals from 7 different restaurants. I wanted to try a variety of different meal types, so I opted for meals including the Butter ramen box, Salt Meats Cheese pizza and I Love Lupe taco kit. My order was made before the rebrand to CoLab, so was still branded as ChefPrep.
The box arrived smartly designed, within the window I was provided. The box was insulated to keep the meals cold, at fridge temperature rather than frozen. You can then choose to freeze any of the meals if you want to at home.
On first impression, the packaging and food look very high quality. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so excited about a food delivery (I do receive a lot of them!) and the box itself certainly didn’t disappoint.
It’s a minor gripe, but the way the boxes had been packaged meant some of them were squashed. Good job that doesn’t impact the flavour of the meals themselves.
How’s the food?
My experiences with CoLab meals varied from the sublime to the average. The reality is that two factors define whether each meal is good or not: the restaurant the meal came from, and whether it’s a good meal for reheating.
Fortunately, I had meals from Butter (fantastic) and Delhi ‘o’ Dehli (sublime) to balance out the more average meals from Foodie Del Mar and Ragu. There was nothing bad about any meal, but they struggled to match my high expectations of these restaurants.
The restaurant partner structure also means that portion sizes are highly variable. My I Love Lupe Pork Carnitos Taco Kit should have qualified only as a starter whilst most of the others were just about big enough to satiate me. If you’re a big eater, you’re probably going to struggle on CoLab.
Cooking the prepared meals
Each meal comes with a QR code on the box, which takes you to reheating options. Some of them are very specific, such as the Butter Ramen which had a few different elements to prepare. Others, simply microwave for 2 minutes (or in the oven for around 10 minutes).
Everything is cooked and simply needs heating through. The boxes most meals came in were microwave-safe so it was easy to throw it into heat when needed.
Dishes I loved
- Butter Ramen
- Delhi o Delhi Butter Chicken
Dishes I wouldn’t recommend
- I Love Lupe Taco Kit (portion size)
CoLab Pantry Extras
After partnering with CoLab Pantry, you can also buy various pantry ingredients and beverages alongside the main “ready to heat”meals. The pantry contains hundreds of products from crumpets to crispy chilli oil from over 40 different restaurants. There’s an incredible selection of beautiful, artisanal ingredients.
Don’t expect anything to be budget-friendly though. These are premium products that come at a premium price.
My Final Thoughts
The main risk CoLab have when partnering with local restaurants is that they’re entirely dependent on the quality of those restaurants. If they can maintain a strong variety of high-quality restaurants then I’d say everyone should consider getting CoLab deliveries.
One of the reasons I loved CoLab is to explore new restaurants that I didn’t even know existed. For me, the Delhi ‘o’ Delhi Butter Chicken was easily one of the best I’ve ever tasted so I’m already planning my trip to Newtown to eat at their restaurant.
Overall, I do struggle with the price of CoLab meals… especially when they are higher than the restaurant charges themselves. I’d personally rather go to the restaurant and enjoy the atmosphere/service despite the convenience of eating these meals at home. In reality, CoLab are more directly competing with services like Uber Eats and Deliveroo for people who value the convenience of eating at home.
Lastly, I really hope they add nutritional information and portion sizes soon. These would make the CoLab shopping experience much easier.