CHARLESTON, S.C. — Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. has opened a new Dream Dinners franchise inside a Columbia, S.C., store, becoming the first retailer to partner with the pioneering meal-assembly concept. For a fee determined by entree selections and number of servings, Dream Dinners provides customers with the ingredients, equipment and hands-on instruction needed to prepare and freeze balanced meals for their families for a week or two at a time.
“It seems like a perfect fit,” said Rita G. Postell, manager of employee and community relations for Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. “We have so many shoppers who are moms that are stretched for time, or retired families that are tired of eating out, but don't want to go to the trouble of turning their kitchen upside down to prepare a meal from scratch.”
The concept certainly seems to answer a number of consumer trends, such as the demand for convenience and the desire to eat healthier and less processed foods, and its recent growth indicates a lot of pent-up demand. Since Snohomish, Wash.-based Dream Dinners opened its first location in 2002, dozens of similar concepts have launched throughout the country, and Dream Dinners itself has grown to almost 300 franchised locations in 33 states.
“They provide an excuse for not cooking at home on a regular basis, and they give the consumer a feeling that they really are serving better-quality food,” said Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food-service research consultancy.
Dream Dinners co-founder Stephanie Allen agreed, noting that many of her company's customers feel that the freshly prepared and home-frozen meals are much better for their families than the fast-food alternatives they might otherwise resort to.
“Our guests would typically be eating out at least three nights per week — eating chicken McNuggets or pizza or something they're not proud of,” she said. “They feel like they don't have time for that home-cooked dinner.”
Allen said that locating the concept inside a supermarket would make shopping trips more convenient.
Postell agreed. “It's pretty much a no-brainer. You're in a grocery store, so you're going to go buy fresh produce or fresh-baked bread or visit the wine section. In Dream Dinners sessions, they actually suggest what the entrées will go well with, whether it's a wine or a bread or a side dish.”
The Piggly Wiggly franchise location features six stainless steel prep stations, where customers will find all the spices and ingredients they need for preparing specific entrées — which alternate based on a monthly calendar — along with simple instructions for assembling the meals. Hands-on help is also available, and Postell said that many Dream Dinners guests help each other during sessions, and even treat the sessions like a night out.
“There's a social element to it as well,” she said. “They serve appetizers and refreshments, there's nice music playing, a lot of the women will be chatting with each other. By the time you've finished, you've done what would have taken you 10 times as long in your kitchen by yourself. This is a whole different experience.”
Although their franchise has only been in operation for a little more than a week, Postell said Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. is also considering four additional supermarkets where they might open more. She declined to name those locations, but said, “We believe it's going to be such a good fit that it will be beneficial to those communities and our company to incorporate them under our roof in those areas.”
Paul said that it's still relatively early in the development of meal-assembly concepts to know their staying power and long-term appeal. But he added that the successful cooking school programs operated by several high-end supermarket companies are a good indication that the concepts could work well when paired with a food retailer.
“It's just another way of differentiating themselves from the competition,” he said. “And it taps into this interest people have in knowing how to cook. I think it really raises the image of the grocer that does that.”