Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Meal assembly industry is a growing $270 million business

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Jennifer Carmichael (left) and Lori Freeman, both of Sykesville, assemble entrées at Super Suppers in Mount Airy, one of almost 30 meal preparation stores in Maryland.
Tracy Winfrey-Edwards stood in her apron, staring at a list of ingredients before she got to work carefully spooning and measuring the spices and herbs neatly shelved in front of her: a quarter-tablespoon of salt, a teaspoon of paprika, half a teaspoon of crushed garlic.

Winfrey-Edwards was not in the familiar confines of her own kitchen, but at a Dream Dinners kitchen for meal assembly in Silver Spring.

Dream Dinners is one of the growing number of businesses where customers can walk in, put together a half-dozen or more entrées, and less than an hour later take them home, where the meals are cooked that evening and later in the week.

No need for a cutting board or fancy crushing gadgets — the chopping, grating and mincing has all been done. Customers laugh in the face of cleanup. That’s taken care of, too.

The meal assembly industry is about five years young, and a growing clientele has made it a $270 million business in 2006, according to Easy Meal Prep Co. of Wyoming. This year’s revenues are expected to soar to $504 million.

Easy Meal provides products and services for people interested in starting a meal assembly business, and also established the International Association of Meal Prep Businesses. The association reported that, as of January, there were 1,200 meal assembly stores across the country.

‘‘I am a big cook. I have a big repertoire of meals. But working full-time with three kids, activities, running here and there, I needed convenience,” said Winfrey-Edwards, of Silver Spring.

And apparently so do many other working parents, singles and other people who are simply cooking-impaired and want to make a tasty meal at home.

Renée Pace of Laurel is a single woman who learned a little about cooking from watching her mother, but didn’t have a wide range of recipes under her belt.

‘‘And that’s when you start eating out more — when you’re tired of what you cook,” she said.

Pace said she can easily spend $40 for a restaurant dinner, so she decided to try out the $50 introductory offer at the Silver Spring Dream Dinners that armed her with three different entrées of six servings each to cook at home. The menu included fish fillets almondine, fiesta chicken with corn medley, and herb-crusted sirloin steaks.

Each dish generally costs from $3 to $4 per serving, and customers have a choice of picking either a three-, four- or six-serving entrée.

Most customersare women

‘‘The woman is the person that typically provides the meals for the family,” said Amy Vasquez, a spokeswoman for Easy Meal Prep. Women also recognize the value of providing a good, home-cooked, nutritious meal while saving time and money, she said.

Customers who patronize meal assembly stores don’t have to worry about researching recipes and building up a spice rack with seasonings that are rarely used, Vasquez said. It also helps people expand their culinary knowledge and skills.

Most people have five to 10 dishes that they make well and rotate, ‘‘but meal prep allows them to use flavors and recipes that they may not have otherwise tried before,” she said.

Industry experts credit a 2003 article in Working Mother magazine about Dream Dinners, an industry leader, with generating the attention that sparked a national interest in meal assembly.

People such as Leslie Hanna thought it was a great idea, and that’s what sparked the industry’s growth, she said. Hanna, board president of the International Association of Meal Prep Businesses, started her independent operation, Meal Time, in Minnesota last year.

Some people have gotten into the industry because ‘‘they thought it was a neat idea and they love to cook,” Hanna said. But success requires much more than an affinity for cooking, she said.

Publicity and marketing are key. Owners must be able to explain the concept, because it’s so new, and get the word out, Hanna said. Some businesses fail because they lack the capital needed to overcome a slow start.

Dream Dinners and Super Suppers are the biggest franchisers, with more than 200 locations each across the country, followed by Dinner by Design and Dinners Ready, Hanna said.

Food industry analyst Ron Paul, president of Technomic in Chicago, said this is the era of celebrity chefs and an explosion of television cooking shows, with more Americans trying to understand restaurant-quality meals and replicate them at home, he said.

‘‘There’s this heightened interest in cooking,” he said.

Many consumers lack basic cooking skills. ‘‘They didn’t see their parents cook that much, and they don’t know how to cook,” Paul said.

Most ownersare women, too

At the international association’s annual meeting in June, about 75 percent of the entrepreneurs were women. ‘‘And the men that were there are usually a husband that is working with their spouse,” Hanna said.

The industry attracts women because, more than men, they tend to understand the ‘‘problem” and how difficult it can be to get a homemade meal on the table, she said.

Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Howard counties have embraced the meal assembly concept more than any other regions in Maryland, each with about a half-dozen stores, according an Easy Meal Prep listing. All stores in Montgomery County opened within the past year, and only one is an independent operation.

The concept has not yet caught on in Prince George’s County, but that won’t be for long: Dream Dinners has its eye on that region, according to spokeswoman Alice Haynes.

Missy Carr, chef and owner of Thyme Out in Gaithersburg, looked into meal assembly franchises before deciding to go for her own operation. ‘‘I just felt like we can do it better,” she said.

Carr wanted to have control over the food quality, recipes and ingredients. She is looking to expand the business, and has a signed letter of intent on a location in Howard County.

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.