Do-It-Yourself Stores Allow Customers to Produce a Month of Dinners in Two Hours

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CHICAGO ( -- Fed up with frozen meals, fast food and takeout, women are heading back to the kitchen in droves. Well, actually, in groups.
The Easy Meal Preparation Association estimates there are now 500 mass assembly retail kitchen outlets in operation across the country.

Sporting June Cleaver-pleasing names like Dream Dinners, Dinners Together and Simply Homemade, hundreds of fresh-meal-assembly operations are cropping up nationwide, tapping into busy women’s guilt over home cooking and even putting a practical spin on the girls’ night out.

Assembly line efficiency
At these storefronts, women whip up a month’s worth of dinners in a single, two-hour session without worrying about planning, shopping, chopping, cleaning up or even cooking. Think Rachael Ray meets the automotive assembly line.

Born out of freezer cooking clubs in Washington state, about 500 storefronts are open today nationwide, said Bert Vermeulen, president of the Ohio-based Easy Meal Preparation Association. The popularity of the concept is a natural in a country for better or worse reliant on Stouffer’s and Hamburger Helper. While NPD Group reports that 80% of meals are eaten and prepared at home, one-third of those are ready-to-eat or frozen products.

Pre-cut, pre-cooked
Here’s how it works: For each dish, the customer measures and scoops pre-cut, pre-cooked ingredients into a resealable bag or aluminum pan and labels each entree to take home. Meals run the gamut from lasagna to a sausage, chicken and white-bean cassoulet, and cost anywhere from $80 for six dishes to $312 for a dozen high-end entrees and desserts to feed a family of four to six. The average “class,” or meal-prep session, costs about $200 for 72 servings.

Though some men show up, it’s clear they’re not the target. “We’d been tiptoeing around this whole issue with [promotional copy] like, ‘For every busy family out there,’ and finally we said, ‘Who are we kidding?’” said Julie Duffy, a former Discover Financial marketing executive who is president and founder of Dinner By Design, a concept with 15 kitchens in Chicago’s north suburbs. “It’s the woman who is still responsible mainly to get dinner on the table.”.

The meal assembly kitchens have also proved popular becuase of the socializing venue they provide. Customers often come in small groups and enjoy what one operator called 'two guilt-free hours out with girlfriends.'

Indeed, women spend twice as much time on meal preparation as men, though a lot less than they did historically. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the 1920s and '30s, women spent an average of 30 to 42 hours per week planning and preparing food. Today, they spend 1.2 hours a day.

“Luxury today is defined in time,” said Robin Domeniconi, president and publisher of Time Inc.’s Real Simple, which entertains advertisers by hosting sessions at such meal-assembly kitchens. “This is a fantastic solution to these problems.”

An excuse to socialize
Food isn’t the only draw. Naperville, Ill.-based Dinners Together heavily reinforces the social factor with parties around Bunco dice-game nights, baby showers and book clubs. Customers get “two guilt-free hours out with girlfriends, yet it’s very productive for your family,” said Deb Scheckel, owner of the independent store, which has a “living room” area where women can chat and drink wine as a break from the assembly line.

Former caterer Ms. Allen and partner Tina Kuna started Dream Dinners and were the first to standardize the concept, in January 2002. After Working Mother profiled the company, it quickly grew, and in June 2003 began franchising. It now has 95 storefronts (three company-owned) and 150 planned franchises.

Easy recipes
Cindy Hradil, co-owner of Simply Homemade, a former brand-management executive for ConAgra and Kellogg Co., has “over 3,500 customers in a year.” One-fourth are novice cooks, so she prides herself on offering entrees that sound intimidating but are really easy. “We provide the step-by-step cooking instructions,” she said. “If you can grill, you can grill salmon on a cedar plank.”

But despite its convenience, Barton A. Weitz, professor of marketing at the University of Florida, is skeptical of the long-term appeal: “Does just picking up stuff from containers and putting it into another container make you feel like you prepared the meals?”

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