The convergence of aspirations for good, healthy meals with a documented need for family table time and a quest to know exactly what’s in the food and where it came from could turn consumers on to the kitchen stove again.
But maybe not like as in the past.
To the rescue is the young-and-growing quick-meal-prep industry. Consumers—usually busy moms—go into one of the nearly 1,200 meal-prep outlets nationwide once a month, assemble chopped and prepared ingredients for several featured recipes, snap on the lids or zip the bags, and rush home to the freezer with multiple servings of a month’s worth of meals. Thaw, cook, and serve. Done.
The concept started its “make-and-take” ascent in 2002. Caterer Stephanie Allen and a friend had already been meeting together regularly and assembling ingredients for multiple meals and told their friends about it. After 9/11, people wanted to get back to the dinner table, they wanted home-cooked meals, and they wanted to save money, Allen says. “People came out of the woodwork asking for my help.”
In March 2002, she gathered 44 women in a rented commercial kitchen, and by June she opened her first store Dream Dinners. The concept now has 209 franchised units in 37 states with headquarters in Snohomish, Washington.
Quickly, similar concepts popped up across the county, and today the meal-prep industry is a $370-million business, expected to increase to $410 million by the end of 2009, according to The Easy Meal Prep Co., a Cheyenne, Wyoming–based consulting company.
Though meal-assembly concepts account for less than two-tenths of a percent of dinners, innovation abounds and could be contagious to consumers when more of them catch wind of it.
Lack of consumer awareness is the meal-prep industry’s biggest challenge, says Bert Vermeulen, owner/president of The Easy Meal Prep Co. “It allows traditional dinner at home, which is healthy for the body and mentally healthy for the family. A lot of people know they need that, but they don’t look for this concept as a solution. A large portion of the population doesn’t know it exists or how it works,” he says.
Old habits are the biggest competition to the meal-prep industry, says Judie Byrd, founder of Super Suppers, a Fort Worth, Texas-based chain of 150 franchised stores in 41 states. “Busy working moms don’t want to gather up the kids after working long hours, put them in the car, and sit at a restaurant and eat, but they do. It’s an old habit,” she says.
Consumers who are aware of the quick meal-prep concept have pushed the industry in new directions, both operationally and in terms of flavors, ingredients, and meals.
The same crave for convenience that led to the drive-thru has caused much of the meal-prep industry to transition from consumers assembling the ingredients to the store custom-assembling them for the consumer. The customer usually goes online, orders the meals with instructions on ingredients to leave out or include more of, then swings by to pick up the containers ready for the freezer. In 2004, 90 percent of the meals were assembled by the customer. The Easy Meal Prep Co. estimates that by the end of this year, only 33 percent of the customers will assemble the meals themselves.
At Super Suppers, Byrd estimates that only 5 percent of her customers still come in and assemble their own meals, and she likes it that way—calling it “take and bake.” Staff assembly of the ingredients guarantees quality control. “The cooking instructions are tested on that recipe. If someone constructs their own, there are variables, like how much a cup is. Some say it’s a level cup; some say it’s a heaping cup,” she says.
Yet Allen with Dream Dinners still banks on the business model of customers coming in for the “girls’ night out” meal-assembly social time. “We don’t compete with the office take-out or the curbside to-go,” she says.
Yet others freely experiment with different business models.
When Jeff Stevens and his wife started their single-unit San Francisco Bay area Deeelish! Meals Made Easy business a few years ago, Stevens went at it with a desire to match the area’s lofty culinary standards with consumers’ high expectations. “It meant hiring a chef with a phenomenal background and skills and an understanding of the limitations this process imposes from a cooking standpoint,” he says, referring to menu items that are freezable, easy to assemble, and simple to prepare at home. He hired veteran Bay area restaurant chef Lev Dagan, who also is an instructor at the California Culinary Academy.
Beyond the chef’s ability to create great recipes, it was important to Stevens to offer multiple meal-purchase options and delivery methods.