Stores simplify making dinner

March 18, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

Howard County working mothers Brenda Bloom and Cheryl Post used to drive 90 minutes to New Jersey to prepare meals at Super Suppers, a meal-assembly franchise that began in Texas and hadn't yet come to Maryland.

"I traveled quite a bit with my job, and we found meal assembly because we needed it," Bloom said. "It was a necessity for us."

That was in 2005. Since then, four such businesses have opened in Howard County: Let's Dish, Let's Eat Dinner, Super Suppers, led by Bloom and Post, and Your Dinners.

The owners of all four stores say that business is doing well and that there's no reason to fear competition.

Alexa Corcoran, a Let's Dish owner, said the Columbia location of Let's Dish is considered the most successful meal-assembly franchise in the nation based on the number of meals prepared.

"I think Howard County is a great market for us and this industry because it's ... full of busy people," Corcoran said. "There are a lot of families that are looking for these home-cooked meals."

The concept of meal-assembly stores is simple. Customers choose as many as a dozen meals from a menu that changes monthly. They then rotate from station to station, assembling the entrees from ingredients that have been prepped and measured. They package the food to take home and stick in the freezer. When they're ready to eat, they just heat up the meal, and dinner is served.

Advocates say that preparing meals this way is fun and that it is less expensive and easier than looking through recipes, buying groceries, preparing food and cleaning up. Plus, customers can fine-tune the recipes to their family's taste, by leaving out mushrooms, for example, or adding more cheese.

"You're still having a lot of input into what's going into your family's meal, but we're taking 90 percent of the work out," said Mark Feinberg, owner of Your Dinners. Most stores also sell ready-made meals, but those dishes can't be customized.

According to Easy Meal Prep, an organization that supports assembled-meal companies, the first assembled-meal store opened in Washington state in 1999, but the concept back then was slightly different: Customers had to cook their meals in the store, and prep took as long as six hours, instead of the two hours customers typically spend now.

Dream Dinners, which opened in Texas in 2002, has grown to one of the largest such companies, said Amy Vasquez, a representative for Easy Meal Prep. These days, she said, about a third of the franchises are large chains, a third are small chains and a third are stores with a single location.

Bloom said the assembled-meal business is booming because the stores fill a need.

"The population has gotten tired of eating poorly," she said. "They're looking for opportunities to put good food on the table."

Even in Howard County, more stores are planned. Bloom said she and Post are looking for a second location and hope to open another Super Suppers by the end of this year.

The first Maryland meal-assembly stores were Let's Dish. A team of four local owners purchased the concept from its Minneapolis-based founders and have now opened nine in Maryland and Virginia, Corcoran said. Those stores use the same logo and Web site as the Midwest locations but create their own menus, she said.

The owners of the Howard businesses say they are all slightly different. Super Suppers, for example, was founded by a chef, Judie Byrd, who founded the Culinary School of Fort Worth in Texas. The menu, which changes monthly, includes dishes such as basil pork chops with Caesar penne pasta and Chinese five-spice cod with warm Asian slaw. Bloom said the dishes are trans fat-free.

Mark Feinberg said Your Dinners has more flexibility.

"Not being a franchise, we're able to make a lot more decisions locally," he said.

His dishes are more regional in flavor and include Old Bay seasoning as well as items such as Italian sausages from local vendors, he said. He tries to make his meal choices kid-friendly, he said, and includes such entrees as tuna noodle casserole, shepherd's pie and shrimp Creole.

He also allows customers to buy as few as three meals at a time, he said, and offers a smaller-portion option that feeds two or three.

Let's Dish claims to have the most local experience and can use its relatively large size to purchase high-quality meat and produce, Corcoran said. Let's Dish works to make its sessions fun and frequently hosts private parties with wine and cheese.

And Dana Snyder of Let's Eat said superior service helps her create loyalty, with many customers returning on a regular basis to restock their freezers. Her store, in the Enchanted Forest, is the first Let's Eat outside Florida, but she's considering opening a second location in Anne Arundel County, she said.

Corcoran said the competition within Howard County is good for business because it builds awareness of assembled meals.

"We don't struggle against people going to someone else," she said. "We struggle against people not knowing about us at all."

Assembly stores

Your Dinners

9151 Rumsey Road, Columbia, 410-715-3501, www.yourdinners.com.

Super Suppers

3290 N. Ridge Road, Suite 115, Ellicott City, 410-461-7300, www.ssnorthhowardcountymd.com/

Let's Dish

The Snowden Center, 6925 Oakland Mills Road, Suite G, Columbia, 410-309-3415, www.letsdish.com.

Let's Eat Dinner

Enchanted Forest, 10040 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-203-1586, www.letseatdinner.com.

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