Putting a Trend To the Test

By Bonnie S. Benwick and Candy Sagon
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

When we first heard about meal assembly kitchens -- where customers spend a couple of hours putting together a week or a month of dinners they can cook at home -- we thought the idea was ingenious. As we were reporting on the trend more than a year ago, half a dozen meal assembly places were set to open in the Washington area, all of them franchises of national chains such as Dream Dinners, Let's Dish!, Dinner My Way and My Girlfriend's Kitchen. Since then, the numbers have exploded.

With the fall frenzy of back-to-school, back-to-real-life upon us, we decided to check back with the meal assembly kitchens now operating around Washington to find out what we have learned about them and what they have learned about us.

The appeal of these operations is fairly obvious: Patrons get the upside of eating at home without the dreary down side. That means convenience, healthier food and compliments on your cooking, vs. menu planning, shopping and measuring.

The drill at the places is basically the same. You don plastic gloves and maybe a head covering and put together the ingredients for up to a dozen or so different meals. Think of it as a do-it-yourself meal kit, a cake mix writ large. Then you take the individually packed fixings home to your own freezer to be cooked as needed. Instructions are foolproof, meals are easily customized and the atmosphere's friendly.

By December, there may be more than 30 meal assembly locations, most of them franchises, scattered between Leesburg and Baltimore (see "Where to Go," Page 4).

Our area is catching up with the rest of the country. The concept arose in Seattle in 2002, and now there are more than 900 meal assembly kitchens across the United States and Canada. There are plans to expand into Britain and Australia and to open 400 more worldwide by year's end, according to the Easy Meal Prep Association, a trade group that is growing right along with the trend.

Even the places that have been open only a few months have learned to adapt to the busy Washington market. The Busy Suburban Mom (With Family) remains the No. 1 customer profile. However, Busy Young Professionals and Couples Looking for Portion Control are right behind.

In the end, the quality of the food is what either draws the most skepticism or keeps customers coming back. Web blogs that dissect the merits of meal assembly kitchens eventually get around to discussing Sysco, the food service behemoth whose food products account for much of what goes into the standard franchise-produced entree. Food purists can spot a Sysco portion of boneless, skinless chicken breast a mile away -- not that it's a bad thing, necessarily, if you're keen on portion control.

However, chopped garlic from a jar doesn't cut it for a fan of the fresh stuff. The meal assembly places that have interesting recipes, can incorporate fresh, seasonal ingredients and can tweak their menus accordingly are true standouts, at this point.

It helps, too, if the dishes have titles that are both informational and appealing. Scan the various Web sites and you'll find typical ranges of chicken, fish or shrimp, pork, beef, pasta and pizza in a month's worth of menus. Nothing we tasted was inedible; some of it was go-back-for-seconds good.

So the system works, as systems go. But we suspect you'll keep clipping recipes.

Here's what else we found:

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