Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller
Unlike other meal-assembly operations, Mr. Food no-fuss Meals benefits from having a familiar name.
Decades before the company launched the meal-assembly business in 2004, Americans got to know Mr. Food—a.k.a. Art Ginsburg—from his regular televised morning and evening appearances. Mr. Food’s chipper and encouraging approach to cooking and signature, “Ooh, it’s so good!” expression have made him popular. His television programs, which began airing 30 years ago, form the core of the business, but Ginsburg has also penned 48 Mr. Food cookbooks.
“We have a nice advantage in the marketplace,” says Howard Rosenthal, the company’s CEO. “We have a brand. Mr. Food is nationally recognized, locally embraced.”
Launching a meal-assembly store, when the industry was in its infancy, seemed like a natural extension for the company, Rosenthal says. The company deliberately took its time growing the franchise. Officials didn’t need to rush into franchising since meal assembly was never the main business, Rosenthal says. Officials operated one store for a couple of years before seeking out franchisees. During those early years, officials watched what other meal-assembly stores did and learned from their mistakes.
The company focused on developing frozen meals made from high-quality, everyday ingredients like all-natural fresh chicken and fresh, not-dried herbs.
Rosenthal believes attention to detail sets no-fuss Meals apart from competitors. Employees in the stores refer to customers as “guests” and go out of their way to make the guests’ experience easy and enjoyable. Stores provide customers with lockers to store their personal belongings and shopping bags for meal purchases. Stores can handle last-minute changes to orders and allow customers to sample dishes. Nearly all locations have kid zones adjacent to the meal-assembly area. Parents putting dinners together can keep an eye on the children through glass windows that divide the kids’ area from the meal-prep space.
The stores also offer kids cooking sessions two or three Saturdays every month. Aspiring chefs get to wear toques while they put their meals together, Rosenthal says. “What we hear from guests is children will eat more adventurous food when they’re part of making it,” he says.
Every month, the company offers 13 meal choices plus side dishes and desserts. Popular meals include stuffed chicken breasts, casseroles, and fiesta pork and yellow rice. October’s menu featured Asian chicken bow tie pasta, Bangkok barbecued chicken, Upside-Down Shepherd’s Pie, and Touchdown Meatball sub sandwiches.
“Mr. Food is not into fiddlehead ferns or mushrooms grown in the deep part of the rain forest,” Rosenthal says. “We do comfort food with a twist.”
Customers can order online for meal assembly sessions they participate in or grab-and-go meals prepared in advance by store employees. Without advance orders, customers can also purchase pre-made meals at the stores.
Industrywide, meal-assembly operators have seen interest in assembling meals decline while sales of convenient grab-and-go meals have jumped. That’s been the case at no-fuss Meals. The grab-and-go segment, which traditionally generated about 13 percent of overall sales, has grown significantly, Rosenthal says. Depending on the location, sales of meals prepared by employees represent 30 to 40 percent of sales.
Customers who assemble their own meals typically purchase six to 12 meals, spending $22 to $23 per meal on average. Meals yield four to six servings. Customers also can buy single meals for $25.
To reach a wider audience, no-fuss Meals is rolling out à la carte pricing as well as smaller meals offering two to three servings. The company is making the option available partly in response to the economy. “We’re helping people with pricing,” Rosenthal says. “That’s part of what we’re doing to work with the economy. We’re letting people buy smaller.”
To appeal to working people, the stores will offer delivery to businesses and some residences. Considering the price of gasoline, Rosenthal figures the service might be attractive to drivers who want to cut out extra stops on the drive home.
Despite today’s weak consumer confidence, Mr. Food has experienced a growth spurt. Having doubled in size in recent months, the chain operates 13 stores with a handful more under development. “We believe in slow and steady growth,” Rosenthal says. “We want to have more stores that are successful than a high numbers of stores.”
Many franchisees are former employees or customers who are enthusiastic about the concept, Rosenthal says. Potential operators can expect to spend from $266,100 to $378,300 to open a no-fuss Meals store in a leased shopping center. Weekly franchise royalties add up to 6 percent of net sales. Franchisees also are expected to contribute 2 percent to the corporate marketing fund.