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:

· Party passes Although meal assembly kitchens initially touted the fun, social aspects of the experience, typical return customers want to get in and out in as little time as possible. What was originally a two-hour process of assembling dinners while chatting with friends and listening to music, patrons have mercilessly whittled down.

"My husband and I can do six meals in less than an hour," says Janet Desjardins of Clarksburg, a meal assembly veteran of three months. "As a result, I barely go to the grocery store now."

Of course, meal assembly kitchens still sign up plenty of parties and get-togethers. For private evening sessions, some places allow outside food and beverages or offer free wine between workstation hops. Avendra, the Rockville procurement-services company Desjardins works for, has booked an afternoon session at nearby Thyme Out in North Potomac for an accounting/finance department team-building exercise.

· Takeout transformation Once they're familiar and comfortable with the food, more customers are routinely paying from $15 to $25 extra to have assembly kitchen employees make their meals to order (hold the green bell pepper, substitute chicken for pork) and pack them up. All the customers have to do is pull their car up out front and deposit the meals in their cooler to take home. At least one location even delivers the pre-packed meals to your home (for an added fee, of course).

Those patrons are turning the business into more of a takeout operation, says Bert Vermeulen. He is the small-business adviser in Cheyenne, Wyo., whose Easy Meal Prep Association has made him the go-to industry analyst in two years' time. "They want easy pickup, on their way home from work. We're surprised that [home] delivery hasn't caught on," he says.

For the record, Vermeulen's ranks of "mystery shoppers" who check out kitchens across the country rank the food at Let's Dish! and Thyme Out as the best among the meal assembly kitchens in the Washington area.

· Cost wise Prices per serving are well under $5, which looks especially good when compared with the cost of prepared and restaurant food. Customers we talked to this summer told us they considered the meals an even bigger bargain once they had factored in less waste from unused special ingredients (that remaining half-bunch of cilantro, for example) and less time spent shopping for food in general.

· Flexibility, please Whereas six-, eight- or 12-meal minimums were the norm, meal assembly kitchens are now frequently offering three-meal minimums and, in some cases, are pricing entrees individually. That makes the enterprise more practical for singles and couples. Just about all the businesses will accept walk-in customers. But walk-ins may find the flank steak -- the most popular menu item this season, across the board -- long gone.

· Big-city blues There are no meal assembly kitchens in the District, and no plans for any in the works. What gives? Industry guru Vermeulen suggests that hard-to-find parking is a factor. To urbanize the concept, he says, pickup and delivery models must be fine-tuned.

Bonnie S. Benwick is an assistant editor. Candy Sagon was a Food staff writer from 1991 to 2006.

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