Jane Korrow works full time, has two kids to feed and knows what a hassle it is to get a nutritious, home-cooked dinner on the table every night. So when a friend told her about a new place called Let's Dish! in Timonium, Md., that could help her stockpile a dozen homemade dinners in just two hours, she immediately signed up.
"I loved it. It was easy and delicious," she says. So easy that the resident of nearby Cockeysville arranged a second visit a month later.
Companies like Let's Dish! call it "meal assembly." Moms call it a lifesaver. And financial experts call it one of the fastest-growing food trends in the country.
The businesses allow home cooks to gather in a commercial kitchen and assemble prepared raw ingredients, following easy recipes, for up to 12 meals. No meals are cooked at Let's Dish! or its competitors. Instead, customers pack up the entrees they've assembled in freezerproof bags and containers and take them home, to be frozen and then cooked as needed.
The experience is not only convenient -- cooks get to skip all the shopping, chopping and cleanup -- but it's also fun, says Korrow. There's music playing, snacks and drinks to enjoy, and other mothers to talk to.
The concept has proven hugely popular across the country over the past three years, with nearly a dozen chains offering franchises. At least six places, franchised by three chains, are slated to open in the Washington area in the next few months. A Let's Dish! in Bel Air, Md., is scheduled to open today and a Dinner My Way is set to open in Centreville by the end of the month.
Although there are slight variations among chains, all offer the same essential services: Customers sign up online for a two-hour session, choosing either six or 12 entrees, each of which serves four to six people.
When customers show up for their sessions -- with a cooler to take home what they make -- they find the ingredients for each entree already sliced, diced or chopped. At the Let's Dish! in Timonium, for example, there are individual stations for each recipe, with all the ingredients chilled and ready to be measured.
Following the step-by-step recipes, customers assemble each entree (adjusting ingredients to taste), and pack them in freezer bags or disposable aluminum containers. At the end of two hours, customers have enough ready-to-cook dinners to feed a family for weeks.
The cost of 12 assemble-it-yourself entrees is usually just under $200, which averages to less than $2.80 a portion for six servings. (Some companies offer already assembled entrees for slightly more.) For six entrees, the cost is $105 to $120, or about $3 per portion.
The concept got its start three years ago with Dream Dinners, founded by two friends in the Seattle area. Co-founder Stephanie Firchau hosted a girls' night out in a rented catering kitchen where friends could socialize as they prepared a month's worth of meals to be frozen and cooked later. It proved so popular that Firchau and partner Tina Kuna decided to turn it into a business.
Dream Dinners now has about 70 outlets nationally, with five planned by next year in Virginia and Maryland. Last year, company sales reached $6 million. The company has grown so fast, in fact, that it recently hired a former Starbucks executive to become its chief operating officer. It also has inspired dozens of copycat competitors elsewhere in the country, with names such as My Girlfriend's Kitchen, Super Suppers, Dinner by Design, Supper Thyme and Supper Solutions.
Stocking up on a month's worth of dinners obviously appeals to families with children. But singles, empty nesters and seniors are also signing up, says Danessa Knaupp, co-owner of My Girlfriend's Kitchen near Richmond. "People come in and split entrees with friends, older parents or adult kids living on their own," she says. Baby shower parties, where friends assemble meals for the mother-to-be, are popular. During the summer, many of her customers make double portions of entrees to take to the beach.
At the Let's Dish! in Timonium, Jenna Millman of Baltimore came to a recent weekday session with her mother, Robin Gladstone. "The meals are easy to prepare, and I liked the idea that I could split portions with my mom," says Millman, as she added chili powder and lime juice to two plastic bags containing chicken breasts. "The first time I came, I didn't split it and it was too much food."
The entree choices at most meal assembly places change monthly and tend toward the gourmet. On the Let's Dish! menu for July, for instance, there's chili lime grilled chicken with black bean salsa, salmon fillet with lemon and dill butter, and Cuban grilled pork tenderloin with chimichurri sauce. Dream Dinners' entrees are a little more traditional, with meatloaf on this month's menu, along with apple-braised boneless pork chops and pepper-crusted London broil.
At home, most entrees take 30 to 45 minutes to cook, but there's no prep time involved, and many don't even require thawing before being put in the oven or on the grill.
Elizabeth Marcotte, owner of a Let's Dish! opening Aug. 16 in Ashburn, says a large part of the appeal is "you don't have to wash any dishes. You don't have to shop. But you still can tailor each recipe to your own family. If they don't like garlic, you can just leave it out."
The concept has been a huge hit with women -- both as customers and as owners of franchises. Many of those who chose to invest in the business are like Knaupp, a mother of two young boys who left a lucrative but stressful corporate job in Richmond to open My Girlfriend's Kitchen.
"I wanted a different lifestyle," she says. "I'm not making anywhere near what I did, but we're meeting our financial projections. And today I had lunch with my 4-year-old. I never could have done that in my old life."
Many women see this burgeoning business as a way to be their own boss, as well as to help other women who want to serve nutritious family meals, says Gregory Fairchild, who teaches entrepreneurship at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. "There's a trend to reconnect the family around the dinner table," he says.
Several recent studies, including one from the University of Michigan, show that kids who eat dinner with their families have fewer problems at school -- a finding that many meal assembly places cite as a way of attracting customers.
It also helps that Americans are cooking more at home. According to the latest data from the consumer research firm NPD Group, nearly 80 percent of our meals are eaten and prepared at home, a slight increase over past years.
Equally appealing is the social aspect of the dinner assembly experience, says Fairchild. "What you're getting is food as an entertainment event. For a lot of people, food is a chore done solo. This turns it into an open event with friends or family members."
Many would-be entrepreneurs are attracted by the relatively moderate cost of franchises in the meal assembly business. Start-up costs for a Dream Dinners franchise run around $200,000, depending on the location. That includes a $35,000 franchise fee plus $10,000 for marketing and grand-opening costs. There's also an 8 percent monthly royalty fee. For the Let's Dish! in Timonium, the investment for the two couples who own it was $250,000.
"That's substantially less than a Subway franchise, which can run $90,000 to $250,000, or McDonald's, which starts at half a million," says Fairchild.
Some critics wonder if this trend isn't just the food equivalent of the paint-your-own-pottery chains that popped up everywhere a few years ago. Many of them have disappeared.
For dinner assembly places to survive, says Fairchild, they must attract customers who keep coming back. "That means [offering] special events and other attractions that keep things fresh and creative." Marcotte, for example, is thinking about having singles nights and charity tie-ins once her Ashburn store gets going.
Others, however, find it a hurdle just explaining the concept to potential landlords.
Laura Lester and Sue Mayfield have been looking for commercial space in Arlington for more than a year to open their Dream Dinners franchise. "Landlords don't understand the concept," says Lester, a lawyer. "One man told me he thought it was just a hobby for women."
When they did find a space and a willing landlord in the area, "the supermarkets didn't want us nearby. The big chains have first right of refusal in leases, and they said no."
But Lester, a mother of two (with a third on the way), says she's undeterred. "I've even driven to the Dream Dinners in Harrisburg [Pa.] to do the meals. For women, it's a lifesaver."