There are a growing number of businesses in the United States that let customers prepare a month's worth of dinners in only a few hours. The so-called "easy meal preparation" concept has spawned a business boom that's led to more than 500 stores nationwide. The largest franchiser, Super Suppers, is based in Fort Worth, Texas.
Its stores look like commercial kitchens. But there are no ovens or walk-in freezers, just large, salad-bar-type stations filled with chopped and sliced onions, tomatoes, peppers, meats and other foods, and spices.
At this Dallas shopping center storefront there's also cheese, quiche and wine set out for customers, who are here to work. "This is my second time," says Candace Williams as she scoops vegetables into a plastic bag, "and I'm telling you, this is a thing of beauty."
The 55-year-old defies at least one stereotype: that this concept, called easy meal prep, is for harried young mothers wanting nutritious and affordable home cooked meals for the family. Williams is just feeding herself and her husband. "I like to do other things with my free time besides cook," she explains. "I've been-there-done-that for years and years. Now it's time to enjoy retirement."
For $199, customers can make a dozen meals at a dozen stations, including, this month, pesto salmon and vegetables and orange-tarragon glazed chicken with herbed noodles. Follow the recipes provided, assemble the prepared, raw & fresh ingredients, put them in a foil container or plastic bag - holding food for up to six people - and take them home to the freezer. Cook them in the oven when you're ready. Some men do this, but, like Robin Monigold, most are women. She says with a laugh that her husband "doesn't like to cook unless it's over a campfire! I like to cook, but it's time-consuming. [Here,] you can put all these meals together in an hour... if I did it all myself, it would take a lot longer."
Reducing the time it takes to make fresh, nutritious meals was an idea Judie and Bill Byrd came up with three years ago. Judie had run a cooking school in Fort Worth for decades. She and her husband Bill, a businessman who'd operated several restaurants, opened a Super Suppers test store that worked. So they launched the franchise to license the retail model to small business operators, who now number more than 120 nationwide.
Bill Byrd, who is Super Suppers' Chief Executive Officer, says the company's mission is to bring families around the dinner table, one meal at a time. He points out, "We know that when families eat together, there's less problems with teenagers. We know that when you talk and communicate well with each other as a family, you find out what the kids are talking about, what they're thinking about, who their friends are, what their interests are. But you've got to have good food, a catalyst."
He points to the results of a survey they did about meal preparation. "The problem we found when we did our survey, (is) that the average cook in the family - whether it's the man or the woman - has five recipes they work off of, and one of them is hamburgers, and another is hot dogs or some kind of chicken. So they get three varieties a week of different types of food. We give them 12 varieties a month."
The concept actually emerged a few years before Super Suppers began, says consultant Bert Vermeulen, who helps small, easy meal prep start-ups. He says the first business he knows about opened in 1999 in Seattle. Two years ago, there were 75 businesses like these. "By the end of 2004," he says, "there were 176. And by the end of 2005, it was up to 566."
Bill Byrd is cautiously optimistic about the trendy concept. "[In] the food business, a new concept usually lasts less than 18 months. This is so unique, it could blow and go, or it could just kind of be there. We'll watch the trends like a hawk." But he and Bert Vermeulen are confident the concept will grow. They say it fills a fundamental need for America's increasingly busy and health-conscious consumers: affordable, nutritious food, in a fraction of the time it used to take.