Cooks who don't like prep work or clean-up are lining up at meal assembly centers where all the ingredients have been chopped, sliced and diced for them.
Though the concept sounds unusual, meal assembly outfits are growing rapidly. The top two operators, Snohomish, Wash.-based Dream Dinners, and Fort Worth, Texas-based Super Suppers, have hundreds of franchises around the country. Other, smaller companies have opened for business too.
The concept could have some impact on supermarkets and restaurants. Customers who patronize meal assembly centers told SN they're dining out less, and also spending less time on food shopping.
"My kids hate to go on errands with me, which naturally includes grocery shopping," said Kellie Bullinger, a Fort Worth resident and loyal Super Suppers customer. "Sure, I still go to my supermarket, but I am in and out fast. That's because I already know what's for dinner. That's a huge benefit. I don't wander around, trying to figure out what to cook. I just grab a bag of salad or some green beans and I'm out of there."
Indeed, busy professional couples told SN that putting together a month's worth of meals, ready for their freezer, at their local assembly site saves them a chunk of money. Granted, many of them probably realize the lion's share of savings by eating out less. Most assembly operations' charge an average of about $4 a serving, lower than most restaurant prices.
Statistics show most people don't like all the steps involved in getting a meal on the table - grocery shopping, chopping onions, washing mushrooms or cleaning up. Many wouldn't mind cooking if they didn't have to do the rest. That's where meal assembly companies enter the picture. They're
playing the role of sous-chef and giving customers a chance to have some fun at the same time.
Here's how it works: A company outfits a kitchen with commercial chopping, slicing and mixing equipment, and contracts with a food-service distributor for ingredients. Recipes are developed and tested for freezability, as well as for taste and visual appeal by culinary-trained professionals. The month's menu offers several entrees to choose from.
Customers book a session that fits their schedule. Then they go to the location, and proceed from one work station to another, each of which is devoted to a particular entree. There, they find ingredients, washed, chopped, sliced and measured out. The recipe itself is clipped to a band at eye level, a la at a short-order grill.
Meanwhile, company employees are nearby to offer assistance, if needed, and to clean up.
Judie Byrd, founder of Super Suppers, started the company as a spin-off from her own culinary school. She was teaching one of her classes, "20 Minutes from Grocery Bag to Dining Table," when she was struck with the idea for Super Suppers.
As Byrd tells it, a woman came up after class and said, "This has been good, but I still have to do the grocery shopping."
That remark kept Byrd up all night, she said, because she knew there had to be a solution.
Two months later, she held her first Super Suppers session in her cooking school kitchen. It was a full house.
"That first month, we held at least 20 sessions, and then it took off, profitable from the start," Byrd said.
She wasn't surprised because her students were her first customers, and they spread the word. Her 20 years of experience running a cooking school helped sharpen her business skills, too.
Byrd, who was trained at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y., develops Super Supper's recipes and tests them herself.
"I don't think of us as competition for supermarkets but rather as a partner in getting people to eat healthy and at home," Byrd said.
"Our clients get their entree here, but they get their milk and bread and salad at their supermarket."
Super Suppers has 220 franchisees, and expects the number to grow to 300 by year's end. This spring, the company added already assembled, grab-and-go dinners for an extra fee, as well as reward cards and gift cards.
Dream Dinners, on the other hand, does not offer pre-assembled meals. The company was built on the premise that mothers actually want to make dinner.
"Our research has shown that [pre-assembled dinners] is not what our customers want," Dream Dinners publicist Caitlin Friedman told SN. "They want to say to their families that they made the dinners. In fact, the self-satisfaction is a key element of the business as well as the personal and social interaction in the store."
Like Super Suppers, Dream Dinners has an enthusiastic following. Mesa, Ariz.-based Dee Ann and Adam Scanniello, who commute at least an hour to work each day, discovered Dream Dinners earlier this year. They give the company credit for saving them time, money and energy, and for introducing them to dishes they might never have tried.
"I think the food is awesome," Dee Ann said. "There's a lot of variety and it saves us about seven hours a week. Hours that I'm not in the kitchen chopping and cleaning up."
Dee Ann and Adam go to Dream Dinner sessions together. Adam particularly commented on the congenial atmosphere.
"There's music playing and your first impression is of cleanliness," Adam said. "You go to the stainless steel tables and there's just no guesswork. Ingredients are measured out. Even I can do it."
Dream Dinners, the first meal assembly operator to go nationwide with franchising, has 185 franchisees to date.
"Dream Dinners' support is great. They're a wonderful company to work for," said Leslie Thomson, one of the first franchisees, in west Seattle.
Thomson, an early participant at the original Dream Dinners location, is a true believer.
"As soon as I started going to Dream Dinners, I saw it gave me much more time with my family, and even time to be creative," Thomson said. "My 'aha' moment was one night when I made a green salad with pear and gorgonzola to go with our Dream Dinner. In recent years, raising kids, I hadn't had time or energy to even think of something like that. I'd have been too busy just scrambling to get something on the table."
Independent assembly operations have sprung up as well. Margie Shumel, founder of One Two Three Dinner, in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., runs one of them.
"A lot of our customers are good cooks, but they just don't have time to do all the preparation," Shumel said. "They have high standards about what they're going to feed their families."
Shumel said she was surprised at the cross-section of people who are her customers. In addition to busy mothers, her regulars include single men and empty nesters. Shumel gives people the option of having their meals pre-assembled, and even offers delivery service.
The meals assembly segment has boomed so much in the last four years that it has its own trade group, Easy Meal Prep Association, based in Cheyenne, Wyo. That group offers support of various kinds, including marketing help, to independents, said association spokeswoman Amy Vasquez.
The growth of this segment is particularly fast and bears watching, one analyst told SN.
"It's a valid trend with legs to keep it going," said Alisa Stanfield, associate analyst at McMillan/Doolittle, Chicago. "It's feeding into what's going on today. Moms and dads are more time-pressed than ever. It appeals to single fathers and empty nesters.
"People are thinking about family time and wholesome food," she added. "Certainly, such fast growth points out the need."
There's little doubt meal prep businesses could take a bite out of sales at conventional stores and restaurants. One industry expert, however, is confident supermarkets are up to the challenge, particularly those with a competitive offering of freshly prepared foods.
"Sure, dual-income families, coupled with a younger generation with little or no culinary skills, will continue to require 'meal solutions,' but I think they'd rather embrace 'do it for me,'" rather than get involved in the preparation, said Ira Blumenthal, president of Co-Opportunties, an Atlanta-based consulting and marketing group.
"A small percentage of people will go to these places, where they participate [in assembling their meals from pre-measured ingredients] for the experience, but I see supermarkets slowly, but surely, getting better and better themselves at meal solutions," he said.
The meal assembly business is growing faster than its operators had envisioned.
For this year, the Easy Meal Prep Association had projected 1,110 outlets, including franchises and independents, but already there are 775 operating and it's only June, noted Amy Vasquez, spokeswoman for the EMPA, a trade association based in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Based on the group's best estimates, there will be about 3,000 units operating around the country by 2010, when revenue for this segment is expected to have reached $1.1 billion. By the end of this year, it's projected to hit $270 million, more than double the $117 million achieved at the end of 2005.
The EMPA updated its projections in March, but "so far every projection we've made has been exceeded," Vasquez said.
The businesses have attracted a great deal of media attention, which no doubt has helped fuel the growth. A front page article in the New York Times is one of the latest, but over the last year or so, the Wall Street Journal, Better Homes & Gardens, Newsweek, Time, Family Circle and Reader's Digest have published articles on the businesses.
The concept of meal assembly hearkens back to the days when mothers cooked enough food on Sunday to feed the family over the course of a week. Some of the dishes, of course, had to be frozen. Similarly, the dinners shoppers put together at a meal assembly site are meant to be taken home and placed in the freezer.
Customers go to the company's commercial kitchen, often with friends or spouses, where they put together six to 12 meals from pre-washed, chopped, marinated, raw ingredients, and pack them in freezer bags. No cooking takes place. Everything is accomplished in a couple of hours because company employees do all the prep work and clean up.