December 18, 2006
CICERO, N.Y. – With four children ranging in age from 11 months to 10 years, Jill Fitzgerald finds herself coming and going all day, with little time to think beyond the moment. Dinner is inevitably even more hectic.
“By then, if I have half an hour to get everybody fed, I’m feeling lucky,” says Fitzgerald, a stay-at-home-mom from Oswego. “I’m a master at pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches.”
But for the next few weeks, Fitzgerald’s family will dine in style – Italian herb-crusted pork chops, cheese-stuffed mini-meatloaf, baked salmon Dijon, slow-cooker cranberry chicken and an assortment of other gourmet-style meals.
That’s because Fitzgerald tried what millions of other pressed-for-time Americans have discovered – the meal-assembly kitchen.
It’s a simple – and increasingly popular – concept. All the necessary ingredients are provided precut, pre-measured and (if necessary) precooked, along with recipe cards explaining what to do with them. Customers assemble the meals in freezer-ready pans at the shop, then take them home, freeze and reheat as needed.
Entrepreneur magazine called it “hands down, among the top franchising trends for this year.”
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Michele Bellso certainly agrees. She opened her first meal-assembly store, Make and Take Gourmet in Cicero, a suburb of Syracuse, in May. She already is opening two more, and is in the planning stages for yet another two.
“I thought the concept was brilliant because it’s all about convenience. No one has time to cook anymore,” says Bellso, 46, who owns an advertising firm her husband now runs and has a 3-year-old daughter at home.
Bellso’s success mirrors the story of the fledgling industry.
The first meal-assembly store, Dream Dinners, opened in a Seattle suburb in mid-2002 when two friends turned the timeworn strategy of doubling and tripling recipes and storing them for later use into a multimillion dollar business idea.
Now, there are more than 1,000 meal-assembly outlets in the U.S. and Canada, said Bert Vermeulen, executive director of the Easy Meal Prep Association, an industry trade group. He says those stores will earn about $270 million this year.
Today, Dream Dinners has 161 franchises with 35 more under construction. Super Suppers, which opened in Fort Worth in mid-2003, is the largest chain with 176 stores and 65 more planned.
New York, with just 12 stores and seven planned, is one of the few states where growth has lagged, Vermeulen said. He predicts 3,000 stores nationwide by 2010.
“People are taking the concept and adapting it, evolving it, which is opening up new markets,” he said.
The first wave of kitchens offered meals that serve four to six people, thus mainly targeting families. Last year, a number of stores began offering meals to serve two to three, going after empty nesters and young professional couples.
It’s an approach seen across the food industry. Restaurants and supermarkets have been experimenting in recent years with ways to cater to consumers by offering prepared meals to go or for curbside pickup, said Debra Perosio, a Cornell University lecturer on the food industry.
“This is the next generation of convenience meals for consumers,” Perosio said.
“Many people have a strong desire to cook. It’s time that they are short on. Look at the popularity of the Food Network where you have one channel devoted 24 hours a day to cooking and eating,” Perosio said. “This is a trend with huge potential. It affords a way for people to put a home-cooked meal on the table that they can call their own without spending all day in the kitchen preparing it like our mothers and grandmothers did. You get to feel good about cooking without investing all that time.”
At Bellso’s store, customers register online for a two-hour session to make six ($115) or 12 ($200) meals from a menu of 16 choices that changes monthly. Dishes range from simple to fancy and include both meat and vegetarian offerings. This month’s menu featured pepper steak, apricot pork chops, almond-crusted tilapia, three-cheese manicotti, pizza soup and cheesy pesto and sun-dried tomato torte.
At Make and Take Gourmet, there are 10 fully outfitted stations, each set up to make two recipes. Each meal takes no more than 10 minutes to put together.
Bellso uses fresh products whenever possible. And she encourages customers to customize her recipes, piling on ingredients they like and omitting ones they don’t. The meals also are easily altered to address specific diets. Only the meats are portion-controlled.
“This is so simple, it’s beautiful. I can’t believe what I’m accomplishing here in two hours,” said Sheridan Simmons of Liverpool, who does the bulk of the cooking for his wife and two children, ages 7 and 15.
On this day, Simmons was stuffing – rather overstuffing – calzones, one of the menu items checked off by his kids.
Bellso estimated she can save the average family 30 to 35 hours a month.
“We are giving quality time back to people,” she said.
She’s also quick to note that at less than $3 a serving, her meals are a better – and healthier – value than a typical fast-food meal.
Whether you plan meals a month ahead or strategically cook extra portions once or twice a week, there are plenty of recipe sources.
For those who prefer strategy, the January issue of Fine Cooking magazine features a recipe for roasting two chickens – one for immediate eating and another for use in other recipes later in the week.
And for planners, consider freezing some baked stuff french toast from Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna’s recent book, “Dream Dinners” (Morrow Cookbook, 2006, $19.95).
ROAST CHICKEN WITH ROSEMARY-LEMON SALT
2 medium lemons
2 T. plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
2 T. chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Two 4-pound chickens, giblets and excess fat discarded
1Ú4 cup unsalted butter
Zest both lemons. In a food processor, combine the zest, 2 tablespoons salt, the rosemary and black pepper. Pulse until combined. Rub both chickens with the zest and salt mixture (outside, inside the cavity and between the skin and breast meat).
Cut one of the lemons in half and stuff one half in the cavity of each bird. Reserve the remaining lemon for another use. Set the chickens on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate uncovered for at least 4 hours, and as long as 24 hours.
About 30 minutes before roasting the chickens, set an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 425 F.
Meanwhile, melt the butter and brush it evenly over both chickens. Sprinkle each chicken with 1Ú2 teaspoon of salt.
Set the chickens, breast side up, on one or two racks (such as a V-style roasting rack) in a large roasting pan. Let the chickens sit at room temperature while the oven heats.
Roast the chickens until the breasts are nicely browned and crisp, about 40 minutes. Use tongs to gently flip the chickens, then return to the oven until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 F to 170 F, about 20 minutes more. Let the chickens rest for 5 minutes. Serve one chicken whole and carve the other for use in later meals.
The whole chicken makes 4 servings. The carved chicken should provide enough meat for two additional meals.
(Recipe from the January 2007 issue of Fine Cooking magazine)
BAKED STUFFED FRENCH TOAST
24 slices French bread, cut 2-inches thick
3Ú4 cup butter, softened (or lowfat yogurt-based substitute)
3Ú4 cup (6 ounces) fat-free cream cheese
11Ú2 cups raspberry jam
41Ú2 cups fat-free liquid egg substitute (also called egg whites)
3 cups fat-free milk
11Ú2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
3 cups sliced almonds
3Ú4 cup dark brown sugar
3Ú4 cup rolled oats
1Ú4 cup plus 2 T. all-purpose flour
3Ú4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Coat three 9-by-13-inch baking dishes with cooking spray. Set aside.
Create a pocket in each slice of bread by cutting a horizontal slit about halfway through each slice. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the butter, cream cheese and jam. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the jam mixture into each slice of bread, then arrange them in the prepared baking dishes. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the egg substitute, milk, sugar and 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon. Pour this mixture over the bread, diving it evenly between the three baking dishes.
In a medium bowl, use your hands to mix together the almonds, brown sugar, oats, flour, remaining cinnamon and vanilla. Scatter the mixture over the bread.
To freeze, cover the pans with heavy-duty foil. Label, date and freeze for up to three months.
To cook, thaw at room temperature, letting the dish sit at room temperature at least 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 325 F. Bake, uncovered, for 1 hour, or until the egg mixture has set and the toast is browned.
Each pan makes 6 servings.
(Recipe adapted from Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna’s “Dream Dinners,” Morrow Cookbook, 2006, $19.95)