Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller
Like so many meal assembly concepts, Thyme Out has altered its original model to reach consumers not interested or organized enough to plan dinner ahead of time.
What started out as a meal-assembly business has evolved into a dinner market with a heavy focus on retail and delivery. While Thyme Out still has a following of devoted meal assemblers, the retail and delivery side of the business generates the strongest sales. Company founder Missy Carr believes those areas will drive future growth.
“Assembling is an option, but we’re much more than that,” says Carr, a trained chef, former caterer, and founder of the company, which has two stores in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. “There were a lot of barriers to the original model,” Carr says. “Meal assembly in its original form was a solution but not a long-term solution. It’s like joining a gym in January. Life gets in the way and you drop the habit.
“We’ve become more flexible and work with people in the way they’re typically dealing with dinners.”
Many busy people deal with dinner by stopping at quick-service restaurants or ordering off restaurant delivery menus. Thyme Out wants to boost its share of the delivery business. Catering to time-crunched parents, Thyme Out delivers preordered, uncooked meals to mothers waiting in carpool lines at area schools. The program is cost-effective since it lets the company deliver dozens of orders in one stop, Carr says. Thyme Out donates 10 percent of sales to the eight schools on its route. In addition, the business provides home delivery in selected neighborhoods.
All menu items are sold à la carte with no minimum purchase required. The menu features entrées such as Bangkok beef noodles, white chicken chili, and spinach cheese rolls, available in full portions serving four to six or half portions. Full portions range from $24 to $28. Recent “Chef’s Specials” included Campfire Salmon, $30; stuffed flank steak, $29; and Tandoori-style chicken, $27. Serving two to three children, kids meals include pizza kits, $15; chicken tenderettes, $15; and “Say Cheese” burgers on mini buns, $15. Consumers also can choose from among seven side dishes, including fresh broccoli, fresh green beans, and sweet potato fries, ranging from $3 to $8. Healthier options, such as whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, are also available. Consumers with special requests can customize their meals when they order online.
Both stores sell preassembled fresh, as well as frozen, meals and have salad bars. One location even features a pizza and calzone bar. The stores are adding more fresh breads and ready-to-eat desserts such as cupcakes, Carr says.
Customers who prefer to assemble their own dinners can choose from among eight meals to put together themselves. Thyme Out welcomes walk-in customers for meal assembly up until 6 p.m. weekdays.
“We’ve gotten away from scheduling and doing sessions,” Carr says. “We’re a lot more flexible with people. We’re trying to offer customers more reasons to come in. We want them to use the meals in the most convenient way they can.”
Carr believes the flexibility and use of top-notch ingredients set Thyme Out apart from similar businesses. The company relies on fresh meat and poultry, homemade sauces, and salsas and shuns preservatives. Meals are assembled in the stores to make cooking at home relatively quick and simple for consumers. All meals are freezable in vacuum-sealed packs and can be thawed in an hour.
“People were turned off by the meal-prep industry because they had four or five steps to do at home,” Carr says. “We don’t leave a lot of work for customers to do.”
For example, one of the top-selling entrées, Bangkok beef noodles, requires just 15 minutes of home cooking, she says.
Before opening Thyme Out, Carr had extensive experience in the culinary world. Carr spent five years running a catering business where she catered fundraising dinners and cocktail parties for a lobbying group. She also worked as a private cooking instructor. Thyme Out grew from its original location to two stores operating out of former Let’s Dish meal-assembly stores. Carr says her immediate goal is to build up business at the stores. She wants to position Thyme Out as a healthier alternative to quick-service restaurants that provide home delivery.
“We want our menu to be in the kitchen drawer with the Chinese and pizza carryout menus,” she says. “We want to cater to that spontaneous dinner decision people are making at 5 p.m.”