Stepping Out To Make a Home-Cooked Meal

One of the more interesting twists in the “home meal replacement” industry–which is a big growth sector in the food service business, are the rising numbers of franchise establishments that allow people to assemble a week’s worth of meals out of pre-prepped ingredients, package them, and then take them home to stow in the freezer until they are needed. Then, they are popped into the oven to create a “home-cooked” taste and aroma in a fraction of the time it would take to actually make the meal from scratch. Those who use these businesses are thrilled that they are saving time by not having to do the shopping, prepping and cleanup, while still serving meals that are quite economical at an average of about $3.00 per serving.

On paper, these “meal assembly centers” are an interesting idea: so interesting, in fact that Entrepreneur Magazine called them “one of the hottest franchise concepts of 2006.” The magazine’s website lists 6 different franchise companies ( The Dinner A’Fare, Dinner By Design, Dream Dinners, Let’s Eat, Super Suppers, and Supper Thyme USA) with a total of 241 locations between them.

This information appears to be out of date, however. Other sources, including the websites of Dream Dinners, Dinner By Design and Super Suppers, the three of the largest meal assembly companies, cite over three hundred and ninety-eight locations across the US. Another source lists 570 locations spread among 200 different companies.

The growth of this sector of the food service industry is also evident in the appearance of a trade group that offers support to those interested in opening a meal assembly business. Even though the trend is in its infancy, with most of the businesses going no further back than 2002, The Easy-Meal Prep Association (which probably offers the most accurate number of the franchises and independant meal assembly businesses in the US to date: 270 companies with 742 outlets) offers a number of products and services meant to support the franchisees and business owners who make this tremendous growth possible.

The concept has even spread to Canada.

How does it all work?

The idea is simple, and is related to the methods used by organized parents (and personal chefs, for that matter) to put home-cooked meals on the table every night of the week, even with a schedule too full to cook. Customers sign up for the service online, where they specify the number of meals they wish to assemble, and choose from the recipe/menu options listed on the website. These menu offerings change periodically, so that repeat customers do not get burned out on the same choices in meals.

They choose a date and time to come in to do their cooking. At the appointed time, they arrive at the location, put on an apron, and start “cooking,” a process which consists of going from station to station, and following recipes by measuring pre-prepped ingredients from bins into plastic ziploc bags. These are taken home and stowed in the freezer or fridge until they are thawed and cooked for a warm, cosy family meal. It offers the ease and convenience of popping a frozen entree from the grocery store into the oven, while giving the customers the feeling that they contributed to the creation of the meal (thus relieving guilt) and giving them the appearance of avoiding processed foods, with all of the attendant additives.

Many of these franchises also work hard to sell the idea of “cooking parties” to corporate groups and individuals. Many of the locations supply drinks, snacks and music, the group recieves a discount on the dinners prepared, and the host or organizer of the party often is given her dinners for free. The fun of coming together and “cooking” with friends is emphasized, however, it is obvious that the parties concept is a very well-thought out marketing ploy. By getting new clients to try their services in the fun and informal setting of a party, franchise owners hope to gain more repeat customers.

What is the food like?

Well, I cannot speak from experience, though, in truth, I am half-tempted to take a trip to Columbus to one of these places and give them a try, though I am reluctant to make their minimum of twelve meals. (Why? Because if the food sucks, I certainly don’t want to spend that much money making stuff that none of us will end up eating, that’s why.)

However, among the plethora of news stories out there on the phenominon, there are some pretty sharp critiques.

Lisa Kahn of the New Jersey Star-Ledger noted that because individual franchises had to follow the recipes from corporate headquarters, which are often based far afield, there is no ability to account for individualized local tastes. While most of the companies rely on professional chefs to revamp family favorites such as pasta, beef, chicken and pork, she points out that many New Jerseyites who are accustomed to ethnic food and fresh herbs might not “swoon” over recipes that include garlic powder and frozen pre-chopped onions as ingredients.

Jim Myers, staff writer for The Tennessean, actually went to an outlet of Super Suppers in Franklin, Tennessee and tried out the experience of meal assembly. While he praised the economy of producing the meals at $3.00-$5.00 per serving, he less than impressed with the quality of the ingredients or recipes. He acerbically notes, “Having all your ingredients prepped and ready is called mise en place in formal kitchens, which is French for having everything in its place. I’m a huge fan of mise en place, except when all the mise in the place is a parade of SYSCO products such as frozen chicken bits, garlic powder and fruit drenched in syrup.”

He elaborates that he had hoped for better, fresher ingredients, and that while some frozen foods are fine, the combination of frozen.vegetables and meats, canned chopped garlic, frozen chopped onions and wan-looking spices, gave a flavor to the dinners that did not say “home” to his palate so much as “institution.” He also noted that most of the recipes were loaded with sugar and fat and were not as healthy as Super Suppers claimed.

(On the other hand, for $3.00-$5.00 per serving, what does he expect?)

So, what do I think of all of this?

I have to admit that I think it is just a step above buying Stouffer’s frozen entrees for your family.

I recognize that people have less time to cook than they would like, and it is a struggle for most families to eat a decent dinner together without resorting to pizza or take out. And while I agree with the recently trumpeted research stating that kids are better off having a home cooked, sit-down dinner with their parents, than they are eating microwaved food between activities, I am not sure that the ingredients used in these meal-assembly franchises are going to make meals that are any healthier than the average take-out or frozen dinners. (That research, btw, seems to appear in the press releases and marketing materials for these meal assembly companies–if the number of times the statistics are cited in media stories on the companies are any way to judge. It makes me think that they are preying upon parental guilt in a big way.)

I know that as a personal chef, I tended to use the healthiest, freshest ingredients possible in the meals I made for my clients: fresh vegetables and fruits, dried beans and grains (cooked in the rice cooker and pressure cooker to save time), fresh herbs, and fresh meat, poultry and fish. I used real, unprocessed cheeses and dairy foods, and every meal I made tasted like what it was: food made by hand, with care and attention to detail. My prices were also not much higher than what these businesses are charging, and frankly, my product was a hundred times better than anything that could be assembled out of Sysco processed food products.

Personally, I think that if people want to serve truly healthy, flavorful options to their families, they will take one day a week, and cook up a week’s worth of food in an afternoon. Sure, they will have to be organized, do the shopping and the prep and the cleanup, but these chores can all be shared among the entire family. In fact, cooking together can frankly, count as quality time. Kids learn a great deal by cooking with Mom and Dad–they learn valuable life skills such as cooking and economics, safety, math, counting and task management. It can also be a great deal of fun, especially if cooking is approached not as a boring, irritating chore, but as an expression of love for food and each other.

But, I also realize that I am essentially old fashioned. It is easy for me to say these things, because I am trained as a chef, have worked as a personal chef and a prep cook and cooking is in my blood and bones. It is easy for me to take the high road and call for parents to use the freshest ingredients because that is what I grew up eating as the granddaughter of farmers.

But, really, think about it. Most of the greatest things in life are not easy. Being a parent isn’t easy, nor is being a good spouse. But everyone strives to accomplish these things–we all try to be the best people we can be.

So, why not try to be a good cook, too? Aren’t our families worthy of being fed the really good stuff?

I think so.

I just wish more folks thought so, too.

52 Comments

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  1. Oh boy. More weird industries! Thanks for telling us about this, Barbara.

    Making food for your family from scratch is really not as hard, and is not such a project, as people make it to be. Some smart planning on the weekend can save you some work during the week; why not cook whole grains and beans over the weekend and freeze them, if you’re so inclined? How about cooking twice the amount of a home-cooked meal (takes about the same time as cooking half the amount) and stick it in the fridge, for tomorrow? Easy-peasy. Today’s roasted root vegetables can become tomorrow’s pureed potato-yam-carrot soup! Today’s tomato sauce for pasta can be the base for tomorrow’s cabbage or minestrone. Feel like eating something fresh? Chopping vegetables and sticking them in a pot or a pan really isn’t such a hassle. A reasonable stir-fry shouldn’t take more than half an hour to make, and it takes me much less, because I’ve done it so often that I’ve become quite efficient. And, if involving more family members in the process, can actually be fun.

    Comment by Hadar — April 26, 2006 #

  2. Gosh, that’s incredible… expecially the fact that they are transforming this in an ascending business…
    I will tag your post in my blog: that’s very interesting knowing stuff that in Italy we don’t even imagine…
    Thanks

    Comment by Piperita — April 27, 2006 #

  3. Hi Barbara – This is really booming here in San Diego and is getting alot of publicity on the radio and news. It’s the new tupperware party to me, most people were talking about the “social” aspect (i.e. chatting and drinking wine), then making really good food.

    Comment by Kirk — April 27, 2006 #

  4. I’ve been reading these articles too and puzzling over them. I’m all for people cooking more with their families, and this seems like it could be baby steps to that, but it just seems – I don’t know – kind of creepy. I guess what bothers me about this is that it strikes me less as a matter of convenience than a fear of cooking.

    Growing up we always ate together as a family. I think that’s why I still like cooking a nice dinner. Plus, on a purely pragmatic POV – it’s SO much cheaper to cook unprocessed food (unless your tastes run to rack of lamb every day). I eat very, very well on not a lot of $$$. And as Hadar points out, it’s not hard at all, just takes a bit of planning, and practice I suppose.

    Comment by Diane — April 27, 2006 #

  5. Hey Barbara,
    This is really capitalizing on parents’ guilt! In Sigapore, dinner delivery service is called “Tingkat Dinner”. Tingkat is a Malay name which literally means “storeys” of buildings. The multi-layer container takes after this concept. An example: http://www.meihao99.com.sg/delivery.asp
    I don’t know how the food tastes like, and I don’t want to try. I am not a trained chef, and I did not grow up with an inclination to cook. I cook now because I want to make sure my family eats healthily and that we can spend time together as a family, away from the hustle and bustle of modern city life. I totally agree with you that, with a little bit of planning, having home-cooked meals every night is not impossible. We sometimes go on for months without eating out. Fast food is a treat for my kids, which I limit to a max of once a month. Frozen entrees – what’s those? (come to think of it, we haven’t fulfilled that fast food quota for a while now…) I’m not complaining and neither are they! Cheerios and kudos to all parents who cooks for their families!

    Comment by Shirley Lim — April 27, 2006 #

  6. I agree, and I think there’s a middle ground — I don’t use fresh herbs unless I grow them (too expensive to buy around here, and they wilt quickly), but there’s nothing wrong with good-quality dried herbs. I don’t grind my spices fresh most of the time, and if I’m in a real hurry, I don’t mind using good prepackaged Indian spice mixes instead of making my own. I’ll even use teriyaki sauce from a bottle if it’s good and I’m in a hurry. The rest of the food is still fresh and homemade, so I’m okay with cutting corners on occasion.

    I don’t really understand the point of paying to mix up subpar precut ingredients, when it’s not much more work (and probably less money, ultimately) to do better at home.

    Comment by Mel — April 27, 2006 #

  7. Great post, Barbara! I started out thinking “What a strange concept” and then thinking “Boy that would be nice to do my prepping in a clean kitchen with someone to clean up for me” and by the time I got to your concluding paragraph it was just “hear, hear!”

    Though I still dream of that second thought. Maybe I can train the Boy when he gets older….I’ll have to find a way to convince him cleaning up is the “fun” part…

    ; )

    Comment by Meg — April 27, 2006 #

  8. And for those of us who are organizationally challenged, there’s saving dinner dot com. For a small fee you get weekly menus & grocery lists. I don’t make everything on the list, but for those six day work weeks, having simple ideas to put together helps me out a lot.

    Comment by Gail — April 27, 2006 #

  9. Hi Barbara, I’ve been mulling a post on the exact same topic, but you’ve beaten me to the punch :). This whole meal-assembly business has gotten me thinking about the disconnect between our dreams for our food lives and the reality (not unlike that kitchen appliances post a while back). While I deplore the idea of going to a pre-fabricated meal assembly centre, it makes me wonder about the motivations of the people trooping there en masse. I think many of our heads are filled with ideas about family dinners and, for women in particular, that perfect mom role. As you mentioned, the messages we’re getting about the value of home-cooked, sit-down family meals adds to the pressure. But the reality is overwhelming- it’s not only about knowing how to cook, but knowing how to come up with a menu, day after day, while satisfying the various allergies, dietary restrictions, and taste-requirements of your family. And this often has to get squeezed in between full-time jobs, soccer practices, play dates, etc. Plus, some people simply don’t like cooking (gasp, I know).

    At any rate, the point of this babble is that while meal assembly centres are far from perfect, and they send shivers up my spine, I understand the demand. I agree that it’s easier and better to do it at home yourself, but I think there’s a gap in that department for many people- a number of skills that are missing which allow you to consistently feed a family.

    I’m just surprised that no one has set up family cooking classes yet.

    Comment by Raspberry Sour — April 27, 2006 #

  10. I didn’t realize they were using stuff from sysco boxes and mandating strict adherence to corporate recipes – but I suppose that’s all part of maintaining a franchise. I wonder if this is different between the Big National Chains and smaller outlets. There was an article in our monthly paper a few years ago, about one of these in our area. I got the impression that the owners spent a lot of time preparing for customers – that is, chopping the onions, not opening boxes that came off the sysco truck.

    But in general, I’m with Raspberry Sour – I understand the demand for these centers. I’m also a little tired of reading criticisms of it from people who are ‘beyond’ that need. I do think the social aspect of it is a big sell – more so than a play on guilt, or appeal to Supermom-aspirations. (The few people I know who have gone to one, have gone b/c of the party aspect.) What would be really great is if people went once or twice and realized “you know what? Now that I have a better grasp of the process, I could do this at home!” In fact, I suspect this hot franchise opportunity will wind down in a few years…

    Comment by Tricia — April 27, 2006 #

  11. I’m actually just sad to hear that the ingredients are so sub-par. That’s disappointing. I’ve seen… I think it was Dinner by Design profiled on Food Network and thought it was a pretty good idea. (I looked at their website and remember wishing their menus weren’t so meat-heavy and thinking of all the ways I would tinker with them.) I know on the night when my husband and I don’t get home until after 7:00pm, even a 30 minute prep time, cooking and cleanup can feel like a herculean effort.

    I know, the solution is just to set aside a day to knock out a bunch of meals and freeze them myself. We always swear we’re going to, until Sunday rolls around and it’s beautiful out and the last thing either of us feels like doing is spending the day locked away in the kitchen. So, it just doesn’t always happen.

    Comment by Bomboniera — April 27, 2006 #

  12. I do generally think it is a good idea, too, but if the findings of the reporter for The Tennessean are correct, that the ingredients are a bunch of Sysco products put into bins, then, the results would taste not much better, nor be any healthier than institutionalized food.

    Trust me–I have worked with Sysco stuff. It is really hard to make it taste -good-.

    If the owners and workers at the franchises are actually cutting up fresh onions and garlic, and using good ingredients–I really have nothing against it and think it is a really neat idea for two-income families with overworked parents.

    But, in light of the Sysco connection–I don’t think it is any better than Stouffer’s (and hey–I like Stouffer’s mac n cheese myself, so don’t think I hate all frozen food!) or take out. It just may be cheaper than some take out.

    I do like the party concept–that angle started when the founder of Dinner By Design or Dream Dinners–I can’t remember which–had started hosting parties at her home for her friends to all share in the cost of food shopping, and then get together and make a week’s worth of dinners. That is a way to make what to some people is an interminable chore, a fun activity. (Again–cooking with your family members can be just as much fun….)

    I am not totally against the idea–it is the execution that bugs me. It all comes down to the bottom line–making money. And frankly, the Sysco stuff is rock-bottom cheap. Frozen pre-chopped onions and canned pre-chopped garlic (I hate the taste of both) are cheaper in terms of purchase price -and- labor than buying fresh and having employees prep them.

    If there are meal assembly places that use higher-quality ingredients and have good recipes–I think I would be all about that.

    As for folks starting family cooking classes–they are available all over the country, if you know where to look. I used to teach some of them! But, in my experience, in looking at a lot of the folks in the classes–they come into the class with the attitude that cooking is just awful and they are terrible at it and it is just toil, that their attitudes create a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    And for those people–I don’t know that there is any help. I did my damndest to get them excited and into it, and sometimes I succeeded, but often, it was just like pulling hen’s teeth.

    Comment by Barbara — April 27, 2006 #

  13. Growing up, I almost always ate homemade food for dinner, even when my parents both worked full-time. Sure, we had our pizza or Chinese take-out nights, but my dad, the main cook, didn’t seem to feel it was a burden to come home and grill some burgers or make refried beans (out of canned kidney beans) for burritos or whip up a stir-fry and a pot of rice.

    In college, a friend and I cooked together, alternating nights, and we awed our dorm-mates: we made bean soup (from dried beans), red beans and rice, fish and chicken, no problem.

    I think it’s an attitude thing: Either cooking is do-able (in your head), or it’s not.

    My only problem now is that I’ve been working the 2-8 p.m. shift, so hubby eats a frozen dinner and I eat dinner at work. Not much fun, but I go back to a 7:30a-5:30p schedule next week, yay!

    Comment by Amelia Sunderland — April 27, 2006 #

  14. I guess I just don’t see how driving to another place and assembling all sorts of things into bags there takes less time than going to the market once a week and assembling things in one’s own kitchen.

    Comment by Hadar — April 28, 2006 #

  15. Family cooking classes are a great way to encourage both parents and kids to share the fun of meal preparation at home. I teach classes for middle-school kids (11-14) with their parents, and what I’m finding is that the kids are not only interested in food — real food, not junk food — but that they want to contribute to the family meal. After classes I get emails from the kids, telling me which recipes they made at home and how they varied the recipes (“I made the quiche, but used mushrooms instead of the spinach”….). And with the kids enthusiastic about cooking, the parents begin to look forward to meal preparation as family time, rather than a burden they must bear alone. For me, this is one powerful antidote to the concept of off-site meal assembly.

    Comment by Lydia — April 28, 2006 #

  16. My partner and I live in the UK and read about this phenomenon a while ago. We both value good food a great deal and find it appalling that when we go to the supermarket trolleys are loaded with frozen food for children and ready meals for the adults! We’re both busy people (he’s a junior doctor and I’m a trainee lawyer with a daily commute of some length) but have come up with a three week rotating menu so that each week, we know what we’re eating for dinner and have the ingredients in the house. It beats our student practice of going to the supermarket today. It sounds inflexible but isn’t as we vary the accompaniments depending on what’s available (and local!) and are willing to be innovative.

    Comment by Scheherazade — April 28, 2006 #

  17. Ooh! I also had been contemplating a post on this very subject, but couldn’t figure out how to do it so it wouldn’t come across as offensive to some. I do have friends who have frequented such a place- and they did so for the convenience. One friend loves it and goes back. Her and her DH are very busy and if the choice is between a drive thru window and the Soup’s On meals, she loves having the frozen meal option. The other friend is also a foodie, and wanted the convenience. Her opinion is was that it was okay to have around, but the overall flavors weren’t special. That all the dishes somehow tasted similar, and reminded her of crock-pot cookery.

    Personally, I would never do it myself, however, I have toyed with the idea of offering classes myself where I would invite a group of people into my kitchen where together we would prep delicious and healthy meals. I am leaning more and more towards doing something like that. My desire would be to get more people cooking! I have so many friends who’s idea of cooking is a frozen bag of vegetables that you add frozen sauce and chopped chicken to. It’s so sad, all those processed foods that don’t really taste very good.

    From my perspective, as one who loves cooking, it strikes me that the most difficult part of planning a meal assembly day is the planning itself. Coming up with a week’s worth of menus that use similar ingredients to reduce prep time, and devoting the several hours needed to get the cooking done. People have tried- like the Once A Month Cooking, but again, they seem to rely heavily on ingredients like canned soups. Someone needs to start a cooking at home revolution. :-)

    Comment by Erika — April 28, 2006 #

  18. I have mixed feelings about all this – two working parents, two hungry proto-teenagers – I don’t have enough time to always do it right. We are lucky to have a place near home that does a rotisserie organic chicken with a pint of mash and a pint of veggies for $12.95 – that helps. But mostly it is make it the night before or make it in a hurry. I do things like make two to three times the rice needed. Or make a gallon of polenta.

    I would be OK with the concept as described if it was with good ingredients.

    But why not do it right…why not get some basics ahead of time and then have a group trip to the farmer’s market (or local equivalent) and a dinner prep party afterward? That would be cheap, social, fun AND good…

    Comment by Owen — April 28, 2006 #

  19. I hear all of you–I think that the idea is a good one, but if all of these places use such low-quality ingredients like Sysco, then, there is really no point.

    Lydia–good on you for teaching family cooking classes–that is great! I like to see young people really get into food and offer new foods to their families. And yes, it is a great social opportunity among families.

    Owen–I think the thing that stops people from having such parties is the time involved in planning, shopping and cleanup. I really do. I see such things as fun, when done in a group, and I don’t mind cleaning up. But a lot of people do.

    Erika–that sameness of flavor–that happens with pre-packaged ingredients a lot. And if you think about it–if you are just putting things together from raw ingredients and then cooking it all at once, you lose out on extracting the full flavor from the ingredients. Onions, for example, thrown raw into a casserole, taste watery and sharp, but when you saute them or caramelize them, and then throw them in, they melt into the sauce of the casserole and the sharp flavor is mellowed into sweetness.

    That is probably why it all tastes like “crock pot” cooking to your friend. Because of course, really bad crockpot recipes advocated throwing things all in together raw and just letting it simmer, without taking care to extract the full flavor of the ingredients beforehand.

    Comment by Barbara — April 28, 2006 #

  20. I’m ambivalent about the concept. They offer the convenience of not having to prep your own mise en place, or do any clean up; but the cost, the quality of the ingredients, and the style of cooking (“crock-pot”) are major minuses. Those last two issues would be deal breakers to me.
    However, I do like a good Mongolian BBQ now and again, even though I should be able to do as well (and cheaper) at home. (Here in Evanston/Chicago, we have Flattop and bd’s as well others to choose from.) Some of my friends refuse to go, because they “can’t cook” and therefore can’t make appropriate choices to produce a bowl that they want to eat. (Which I cannot relate to at all! How can you not know what will taste good to you?) One of my friends refuses to go because “it’s too much like cooking!” That is, she wants no part of the preparation/cooking process at all. (But that doesn’t stop her from being a very difficult patron, ordering off menu and practically dictating how her food should be prepared and cooked and served.)
    On a related note, how do you feel about those cereal stores (Cereality, Bowls, et al)?
    Oh, and remind me to tell you about the time my local management team confused Sysco and Cisco. (In their defense, that hospital is in a neighbourhood with lots of restaurants and bars as well as small tech outfits, and both companies’ trucks were constantly rolling up and down the street.)

    Comment by Sterno — April 29, 2006 #

  21. Sterno–I generally agree. What is a deal-breaker for me is the ingredient quality and the fact that you must adhere to corporate recipes.

    I went to a Mongolian BBQ place once. It was okay. Maybe it was just that the one I went to wasn’t so good, but I wasn’t overly impressed. Though, honestly, I cannot reach how one cannot choose what tastes good to them. That is pretty wild, right there. Pretty weird.

    As for a difficult patron who orders off menu and all of that–I know people like that. They irritate me. They bugged me when I worked front of the house, they bugged me when I worked back of the house and they bug me when I go out to eat. They just bug me.

    Cereal stores? That is a big weird, kind of dumb thing to me. I don’t get it. Why go out and eat dry cereal at a cafe/bar kind of place? That is just sort of…ick. I mean, buy a box of it and some milk and be done with. Geez.

    Sysco and Cisco–oh, that is -too- funny!

    Comment by Barbara — April 29, 2006 #

  22. As a former owner I can tell you that unless the meal assembly stores open regular daily and night hours (get rid of the sign ups online) and sell retail kitchen items they will never make money.

    The food and operating costs are double of a restuarants.

    The start up cost are over $175K and the hours it takes to run are as much (if not more) than a regular retail operation.

    If you are serious about a business investment – stay away from meal assembly, there are a lot better and safer money making business opportunities.

    Also, the food from Sysco and other providers is not that great.

    Now if you are just a customer, have freezer space, make the time and commitment to go every few weeks, and can keep a strick routine it is not that bad.

    Some of the entrees are excellent but there is always the meals that make you think ($20 for a 2lb. meatloaf?).

    Recomendation: Try it as a customer, but if you are considering purchasing a franchise: Call current owners who are already operating. It will be much cheaper than opening a new one and I can guarentee they will sell for cheap!

    Comment by Former Meal Assembly Owner — May 5, 2006 #

  23. Hi, I’m the owner an an independent “make & take” kitchen. We are the antithesis of the franchises–we use fresh herbs, fresh, all-natural chicken (if the recipe calls for cooked, we roast it ourselves and hand shred it), and we cut our own pork and beef. My husband used to sell wholesale meals, so we are very particular about our meat. I do use a few pre-prepped items–fresh sliced onions and mushrooms, mostly–but always fresh, not frozen. Likewise, there are items you’ll never see on my menu–cooked ground beef, mac’n’cheese (under any name), or skirt steak. So if you see the need, try to find an independent, they should be happy to let you browse around the store and check out the ingredients. Amy

    Comment by amy — May 16, 2006 #

  24. Morning All,

    I too am the owner of an independent meal assembly business. First, I find it amazing that most of the primarily negative posts have been submitted by folks who have not tried meal assembly but seem able to bash it from every angle.

    I do agree that most franchise centers provide less in terms of service, quality, variety, etc. which is why we opted for the independent route. Our produce arrives fresh three times a week from a produce company which frequents farmers markets – our order for delivery this morning is fresh cilantro, fresh mint, fresh jalapeno peppers, fresh onions, fresh tomatoes and fresh figs. We have a beef and produce vendor who supplies us with all of our chicken breasts, flank steak and pork tenderloins. We trim the meat in our kitchen and I guarantee it is cleaner than any you will find in your local grocery store. Our seafood vendor supplies us with wild caught salmon, grouper, cod, tuna steaks and shrimp.

    As far as Sysco and other large scale food suppliers, we tend to get only dry goods from them. And, as always, you get what you pay from them as well as from a grocery store. If you buy inexpensive imitation cheese, that is what you will get. If you buy a five pound wheel of quality brie, that is what you will get. While we have tried to outsource to small vendors, the notion that all Sysco food is bad and should never be used is just an off the cuff remark. I lived in New Orleans for years and many of the finest establishments used Sysco as a source for ingredients.

    But to the real issue – the value of a meal assembly center. It is not only for lazy people who feel guilt at not providing a meal or who want to fool their families into thinking they cooked. Our customers come from all walks of life – single people who are law school students tired of eating pizza in their dorm – a nurse who divides her selections into small portions to fit her midnight shift so she isn’t eating from a vending machine – yes, the soccer moms who are housekeeper, chauffeur, wife, mother, volunteer, etc. – as well as retired couples enjoying the good life and taking meals in their RV’s for the weekend to meals we deliver to senior citizens not able to shop, chop and cook – divorced single men who bring their children in so they can provide a home cooked meal but don’t know how – for people to pick up an already prepared meal if a friend or family member finds themselves ill or hospitalized or the new mom who is overwhelmed and simply doesn’t have the energy to cook – to traveling professionals who finds themselves on the road and want to ensure their children have healthy alternatives in the freezer – to the Brownie troop trying to earn a badge – to a mother-in-law who brought her new daughter-in-law in to begin to introduce new ingredients to her.

    As a single mom, I am a firm believer in sitting around the family dinner table to connect with my teenage daughter. I much prefer coming home to red pepper and spinach stuffed chicken breasts and a freshly tossed salad than to chatting with her in the drive through line of a fast food restaurant or while waiting for the pizza man to deliver. And yes, I can and do enjoy cooking. I made a pasta dish last night with sun dried tomatoes, capers, black olives, fresh spinach, shrimp and asiago cheese. But tonight when we get home from volleyball practice, it will be one of my freezer meals which aren’t comparable to Stouffer’s as they haven’t been prepared, cooked, frozen and then recooked to be haphazardly tossed on the dinner table. It will be a tequila lime marinated chicken breast made from fresh cilantro, fresh garlic, freshly diced jalapeno peppers, a host of dried spices (they are not bad!), a few tablespoons of tequila and a bit of lime juice.

    Some of our menu items this month include: tequila and lime marinated chicken breasts; nut crusted grouper with a fresh pineapple salsa; hoisin and plum marinated pork chops; chicken breasts with fresh parsley, fresh figs and red wine; apricot and mustard coated chicken breasts; lemon, fennel and ouzo marinated pork tenderloin; chicken breasts stuffed with sun dried tomato, prosciutto, black olives and parmesan cheese; cod fillets baked with fresh zucchini, corn, salsa and a host of spices and an italian strata made with cubed ham and sundried tomatoes. Not a frozen lasagna or meatloaf in sight.

    Consider this before you close the door on meal assembly: we are able to buy wholesale so the cost of putting a meal on the table can be far less than at home so the notion of “what do you expect for $3.00 isn’t valid”. Independent businesses have chosen this harder path because they want to provide quality ingredients and most will sacrifice their bottom line to do so.

    Most meal assembly centers change their menus monthly and are thus able to provide 14 different choices. The consumer doesn’t have to buy a jar of chipotle pepper flakes, a pound of fresh figs, or a container of crystallized ginger just to try something different for his or her family which solves the dilemma of the same old meat and potatoes every night.

    While some may choose to disagree, mise en place for 8 or 12 meals does take an effort in terms of time and clean up. I would challenge anyone to grocery shop, clean and chop the ingredients, wash the dishes, knives, cutting boards, etc. and then assemble meals in two hours or less. Impossible. We spend hours in our kitchen preparing for customers and let’s face it, in today’s harried world, time saving conveniences are a blessing.

    Most owners have heard the call and provide nutritional analysis. We do have a couple of you don’t want to know the fat content selections on our menu each month but we do tend to strive for balanced choices. And, unlike a store bought or restaurant prepared meal, the customer controls what goes into a dish. If you like garlic, add some more. If you aren’t a fan of crushed red pepper, leave it out. We have customers who ask if they can add a bit of sun dried tomatoes from one station to a dish they are preparing at another. “Great idea” will be our typical response.

    Try us. You might like it!!

    Dawn
    Foodies
    St. Petersburg, FL

    Comment by Dawn — May 19, 2006 #

  25. Well, after hearing from two owners and a former owner of a meal assembly business, I have a slightly different perspective.

    However, I am not going to back down from my assertion that low quality ingredients from Sysco do not make for a home-made taste or nutritional quality. (Dry goods are one thing–processed foods are another. I -do- know the difference.)

    Amy and Dawn, the information I have found has primarily been about franchise businesses who use the lower-quality pre-prepared foods. You yourselves chose to go the independant route in order to avoid that trap, and I applaud you for it.

    However, what I said and what others said is our opinions, not “bashing.” And I would very much like to try an independant meal assembly place myself–but I am not willing to go to a franchise and pay that much money for food I can make better for myself.

    As for challenging me to make a similar amount of meals, prep and all in two hours–you are right. No one can do it in two hours. However, I can spend four hours and make twelve meals for a family of four. I did it for years, shopping included–because I used to be a personal chef. What you are offering me, in essence, is to pay you to do what takes me only a couple of hours a day to do. (Shopping and prep work.)

    Since I am a freelance writer, I have the luxury of time available to me, so shopping and prepping are two things I enjoy doing anyway, so why should I pay someone else to do that? As for cleaning–I can do that quite quickly, too, because of my training as a chef, so that doesn’t daunt me, either.

    Were I a full time working mother who had a forty-hour a week job to go to outside the home, then had three kids at home, I would be more impressed with the idea of meal assembly places–and in fact, I said over and over in this post that I thought it was a great idea–it was the -execution- of it that I found to be poor.

    So, please, do not accuse myself or the other commenters of “Bashing” you or your business or the concept in general.

    Because we are not. Many of us are just saying we don’t see the value in going out to make institutional food (Sysco pre-prepped ingredients) just because we don’t have to clean up after ourselves.

    Comment by Barbara — May 19, 2006 #

  26. Hi Barbara,

    My apologies to all. Bashing was too strong a word. I am just very passionate about the service we provide and feel the hair on the back of my neck rise when I hear comments like “while giving the customers the feeling that they contributed to the creation of the meal (thus relieving guilt)”, “I have to admit that I think it is just a step above buying Stouffer’s frozen entrees for your family”, “More weird industries!”, “kind of creepy” and “I don’t know how the food tastes like, and I don’t want to try”. Opinions based on fact or experience are one thing….

    However, I do agree that putting together a bunch of pre-packaged frozen items are a waste of time, energy and flavor. I have done my homework and tasted the competition and feel confident independent owners will win in the end as they provide a far superior product on every level – nutritionally, in terms of taste, economically and in providing an overall accommodating experience.

    I read cookbooks like most do novels and my idea of fun on a vacation is to check out the ethnic markets in the area. While no Wolfgang or Julia, I am able to use a knife with some proficiency. I love to “play” in my kitchen and come up with new meal ideas.

    But, not everyone feels at ease in the kitchen and some I daresay feel panicked at the idea of coming up with an evening meal. Many leave the grocery store with a with some hamburger meat and boxed noodles – and not because they don’t care about the meals they serve themselves or their families – but because they don’t have time, they didn’t learn to cook, they have budgetary constraints, they are stuck in the same ole same ole rut, etc.
    We fill the gap between a nutritionless, overprocessed meal and a home cooked, made from scratch meal.

    Being trained as a personal chef and now working as a free lance writer does allow you the time and luxury of planning, shopping, chopping and prepping to cook meals in a short period of time. And you can triple or quadruple that for a non-professional. And, quite frankly, I am not certain how the notion of a personal chef who comes in and preps 12 meals for an absent family is much different than what we do. Or the home cook who has the time and wherewithal to spend a Sunday afternoon creating meals for her freezer for the upcoming month. Or the chef who writes a recipe and recommends using a store bought rotisserie chicken or pre-diced package of mixed greens or slaw mix to simplify the process. We are simply doing it on a grander scale in terms of our offerings and do always attempt to use fresh ingredients whenever possible but I fail to find where a can of mushroom soup or dried herbs have become the enemy of the home cook.

    Our Big Island Fish label would read as follows: wild caught grouper, coconut, nut mixture comprised of pecans, walnuts and macadamias which we crush ourselves, an egg, ground ginger and salt and pepper. The salsa is made is crushed pineapple (canned), fresh chopped cilantro, fresh chopped red onion, fresh ginger and a dash of cinnamon.

    Our Far East chops are center cut chops marinated in plum sauce, hoisin sauce, fresh garlic and fresh ginger.

    You are right, Barbara. Meal assembly isn’t for everyone and I may have to apologize yet again for my vehement defense. But I just hate the notion that we are elevated fast food, we are guilting moms into our service, etc. We work very hard testing each entrée we offer, creating menus full of choice and variety, and choosing high quality ingredients. I personally feel rewarded when a customer leaves excited because she has just assembled an alternative to pizza or tacos and can provide her family with a healthy and delicious meal with little time or effort. And it all goes full circle – he or she can spend some quality time with friends or family around the dinner table – regardless of how that dinner got there!

    Thanks for listening.

    Bon Appetit!
    Dawn

    Comment by Dawn — May 23, 2006 #

  27. Dawn, I agree with you; I think that the independant meal replacement businesses like your own do offer a valid service, and I hope that you and others like you who offer good quality food for your customers will succeed, while the chain stores that offer processed Sysco crap fail.

    Because in the case of using pre-packaged ingredients–it is one step above Stouffers–but not necessarily in taste.

    Whereas using fresh ingredients, as you do is, just as valid as hiring a personal chef (there is very little difference in our services, from what I can tell, except that the client is actually more involved in meal preparation in your case than they were in mine), making meals on a weekend, or getting together with friends and doing a “do-it-yourself” meal assembly party.

    If I lived where you are–I would give your business a shot, but after reading not only articles about the chain stores, but also comments from former owners of said businesses–I would not give them the money to try them. I’ve heard from too many that it all tastes “institutional.” Besides, even the descriptions they give on the websites do not sound appealing to me.

    But you guys sound cool, Dawn, and if I was in Florida, I’d go try your place out and write a blog post about it.

    You don’t do take out to Ohio, do you? ;-)

    Comment by Barbara — May 23, 2006 #

  28. I too am a meal assembly kitchen owner. But I am part of a franchise. It is great to read all the comments because it helps me understand what is needed to make meal assembly viable to make it a viable option to more people. My experience has been that there are ALOT of people who either do not know how to cook or do not like to cook. As someone who has cooked all their life, I was very surprised by this. I personally feel that there has been a “dumbing down” of cooking skills. So for a certain part of the population, meal assembly is an option. I don’t understand this thing with Sysco or any other food distributor. If you have been in the hospital or your child buys lunch at school, chances are good that part of their meal is made up of product from a food distributor. As far as the quality of our food, most everything we use is what you can get at the grocery store. IQF chicken, pork loin, flank steak, fresh cilantro, even the fresh chopped garlic in the jar. Thanks for the comments and thanks for allowing me to post. Great insight.

    Comment by Tom — May 30, 2006 #

  29. Hi Tom

    Please, please don’t liken meal assembly to cafeteria or hospital food!! It certainly doesn’t conjure up a great image nor does it make my mouth water and goes right along with everything independent owners are so diligently attempting to dispell.

    Thanks!
    Dawn

    P.S. What franchise are you associated with?

    Barbara:

    We will soon be conducting a dry ice experiment sending food to the co-owner’s sister in California. If it goes well I would be pleased to send you a couple of meals (on us) for your comments!!!

    Comment by Dawn — June 1, 2006 #

  30. Dawn,
    Thanks for the comments. I guess my point was that food distributors are used by everyone. As for what franchise, my intent in writing is to gain incite and share thoughts. The last thing I want is for someone to think that I am looking at this blog as another avenue to advertise. I hope you understand. The idea with dry ice is an interesting one. I know my parents in Florida think this a good idea. We are going to be starting delivery service this month.

    Comment by Tom — June 2, 2006 #

  31. Dawn–I would be glad to take you up on your offer, and would be glad to review your food! That is very sweet of you–thank you. I would much rather show up at your place, and do the regular meal assembly thing anonymously, and then afterwards interview you and your employees and some other clients, but Florida is a long way to travel for that sort of investigative journalism when one is a blogger with no expense account!

    But, I will try the dry-ice shipping scenario, gladly. Just email me, or comment somewhere here, and I will get back with you when you are ready.

    Tom–I have worked with a lot of Sysco products, and yes, a lot of places use them. And, many of these products have a very prefab Sysco flavor to them that is unmistakable. A lot of the canned goods are not bad, but things like frozen chopped onions or jarred garlic, always have an institutional flavor that cannot be escaped.

    Now, for a lot of folks, they cannot taste the difference, and that is fine. But for me–I can, and since I am so familiar with the products both from Sysco and US Foods, I can spot the distributor’s products from just a taste, and many of them taste seriously pre-fab.

    Thank you for not using this blog as an advertising tool–that is very, very good of you. Though, in truth, I would not have minded if you had said which franchise you work with here, because it is answering a direct question from another poster in the context of the discussion.

    The fact that you did think about your answer, and didn’t want to appear to be getting free publicity, speaks highly of your business ethic. You erred on the side of tact, caution and good manners.

    Thank you! That is very good of you.

    I am not done with this topic. After hearing from so many posters on the subject, I think I want to go out, and try the experience for myself, so I am going to try and find an independent operator somewhere near Columbus, and try them out. Then, I want to try out one of the franchise operations, and compare and contrast the two, the food, and the results.

    Stay tuned–this one will likely be sometime in the future, but I think it is a worthwhile project! (Besides, I can use the food to fill the freezer for after giving birth!)

    Thanks again, Dawn and Tom, for commenting and keeping the dialogue going!

    Comment by Barbara — June 2, 2006 #

  32. Congratulations Barb!!!!! Yes, you definitely need to begin stocking that freezer!

    Tom, I initially posted my business name not for promotion but to lend some credibility to my rather lengthy musings. I asked your affiliation to maybe exchange ideas from a franchise “versus” independent point of view and am an associate a name with a face kind of girl. Let me know how the delivery experiment works for you.

    Dawn

    Comment by Dawn — June 3, 2006 #

  33. Dawn and Barb,
    Thanks for the input. I guess I have grown “numb” to Sysco food. Dawn, I think it would great to talk about meal assembly. I’m not sure what information I can give you. This is the first time responding to a blog. Let me know. Thanks.

    Comment by Tom — June 5, 2006 #

  34. Hello All,
    I am researching the meal assembly business myself. Very interesting perspectives about franchise vs. self op. I have a 25 year background in nutrition,food management and hospitality services. I left my job approximately 6 months ago and have been researching this business as well as moving forward with opening a high end wine and beer and etc. shop. Thus far it has been very successful. To the point now…I would like to hear from the self op people if they feel like their margin of profit is better than that of the franchise owners – considering that the minimum franchise fee is 30,000 and that the majority require 35,000 and the 5-9% of the profit which is due back to the “company” for support and marketing. Considering the above, I would think it would be. From the franchise owners – do you feel that you truley benefit from the support you get from them. I know how to negotiate with vendors, equipment dealers and marketing people – am able to put together menus that would meet the needs of my location and execute the purchasing of product, as well as train staff to follow procedures. Design concept is not a problem as these businesses are very simply designed and the equipment package is very basic. With all of the letters that I have read above–what are the benefits of the franchise? Self op’s and franchise owners please respond with your opinions.
    The feedback would be very helpful.
    Thanks,
    Laura

    Comment by Laura Warner — June 27, 2006 #

  35. Hello, I am in the process of starting a meal preparation facility in New Jersey. There are only a few here and mostly one particular franchise. I chose to go the independent route as I tested both a franchise as well as an independent and felt the quality of the ingredients was quite obvious with the independent. While I will be using a lot of items from companies like Sysco, I am choosing to prep fresh vegetables, spices, etc. I believe once a customer tries an independent over the franchise, they will be back again. Laura, where will you be opening your location. Maybe we can exchange ideas, recipes., etc. That would be great!

    Comment by Johanna — July 5, 2006 #

  36. Easy meal assembly is huge now. Our company, Invoke Media, just launched a back end web application that does everything an owner/operator needs to run their business. Check out the product page: http://www.eatsolution.com/

    Comment by dm — July 5, 2006 #

  37. Hi Barbara,
    I am a small one store independent meal assembly kitchen in Winchester, Virginia and I appreciated your original post (as well as all the additional comments since). I think there is a huge difference between companies in the meal assembly business vs. companies in the franchise business. The critical success factors for each are very different and it basically comes down to quality vs. quantity. You can’t compare a McDonald’s hamburger with the Classic Burger from a local upscale eatery. As the business model evolves, the same can be said for meal assembly kitchens. I’ve been open since March and while I don’t expect everyone loved each meal, I’ve not received a single complaint about the quality of the meals (with the exception of one batch of salmon we received that did not work well). And I solicit feedback continuously. I am thrilled and so are my customers. I’m thankful I didn’t go with a franchise so I’m not forced to sell sub-par meals with sub-par ingredients. Yes, I use Sysco for some ingredients, but I also use local organic farms to provide ingredients when I can, and I hope to be using more and more of them moving forward. I rely on repeat customers and if the food isn’t good, I might as well hang it up now. For folks considering this business…. consider going independent. Its more work, but your customers (and your pocketbook in the long run), will be better for it. For folks considering attending a meal assembly session – beware of cookie cutter franchises set up in densely populated metropolitan areas – these folks could be out to make a quick buck on a novelty experience, with no consideration for building up a loyal following.

    Comment by Kay Schroyer — July 21, 2006 #

  38. Kay–I am very happy to hear from you. I think you are spot on with your articulation of the differences between an independant meal assembly business and a franchise one. I think that if there were an independant meal assembly business around here, I would give them a go–and then write a review. There are franchises in Columbus, and if I could do a post comparing and contrasting an independent and a franchise business–I would.

    But, alas, so far, I haven’t heard of any independents in Columbus yet. If I do–I’ll have to fit some research time into my schedule so I can do that post.

    Also–I am very glad that this post has turned into a resource and discussion place for folks like you–thanks for stopping by and I hope your business does well!

    Comment by Barbara — July 26, 2006 #

  39. As a customer of one of the chain meal assembly places in the Dallas area, some of the food tastes OK. However, some of the dishes are not very good. The processed food thing is an issue, i.e. refrigerated egg product instead of fresh eggs for breakfast burritos.

    I love the idea of the meal assembly (I have even paid extra to have the service do the whole thing for me – - much like having a personal chef). Does anyone know of an independent service in the Dallas area that uses fresher ingredients?

    Thanks! Julie H.

    Comment by Jule — August 5, 2006 #

  40. Hi Julie

    There are two franchises currently in Dallas but may be independents in neighboring suburbs. Check out easymealprep.com, click on “directory”, click on “by location”, scroll down to Texas and check by city for stores.

    Hope this helps.
    Dawn

    Comment by Dawn — August 7, 2006 #

  41. I’d urge those reading this blog to research and try the meal-assembly experience. I had a terrific time at a locally-owned meal-assembly location last weekend with my mom and husband. The owner emphasizes organic ingredients and locally grown foods. The meals have been delicious and the ingredients were very high quality. As consumers we should recognize this as a wonderful and cost-effective way for many of us to make a month’s worth of meals in a few hours– we should use our purchasing power to demand high quality, organic ingredients from local farms whenever possible. Our meals have been delicious– and there was no sign of Sysco or “big business” in site. We were also able to package our meals so that we could get two meals for two out of every one “family” meal.

    If you live near Santa Cruz, CA– I’d urge you to visit: http://www.freshprepkitchens.com/works.php?page=works

    Comment by Jaimie, Santa Clara, CA — August 12, 2006 #

  42. I love SupperthymeUSA. Our family enjoys the delicious, earthy-home cooked meals. How? We work full time, come home to a great warm meal that both of us prepared at “the franchise” and play with our children in the time it would have taken to prepare, cleanup and go to the grocery store. We have enjoyed 13 sessions together making meals with other family members…neighbors, and daycare moms.
    It’s a blast of fun to discover our love of cooking as we create meals in such a warm, supportive, and inviting environment. Thanks, SupperthymeUSA!!

    Comment by Michelle — December 3, 2006 #

  43. Hi Barbara,

    I’m about to open a franchise meal-assembly in Columbus, Ohio (Hilliard) and I would love for you to try us out! Like some of the independents who have posted, we do use some Sysco and we do have the ability to purchase foods from other places. I, for one, am less about making money and more about helping people eat dinner together. I’m an attorney, my husband a travelling computer consultant, and we have a 2 and 4 year old…so meal assembly, for us, has been wonderful. I loved it so much that I bought a franchise. And I bought a franchise, instead of going independent, for the support and the recipes. Our franchise was founded by a chef who has studied all over the world, including Cordon Bleu and with Martha Stewart in her home studio/kitchen. We have a whole team who tests each recipe 3 or 4 times before it hits the menu. There are a lot of franchises who are not all about the bottom line and could care less about food quality. We all care. We have to care. Our customers are our best advertising! To that end, Barbara, I invite you in for a free assembly of six meals on us! You don’t have to pay for anything – just about an hour of your time to try us out! Let me know if you’re interested…

    Super Suppers Hilliard
    3677 Fishinger Blvd.
    Opening mid-January 2007

    Comment by Heather — January 3, 2007 #

  44. Okay, seriously, I don’t mean to be rude, but so many of you speak of Sysco as if it were its own brand of food. What you don’t understand is that any food packed in a Sysco box is actually packed for Sysco by a manufacturer. That’s right, those Sysco branded chicken breasts are probably Tyson. And that Sysco branded spaghetti sauce is proabably Heinz. It is the same food you see at your local grocery store. Very interesting that everyone thinks it has it’s “own” taste. I have worked in the restaurant biz for 20 years, and I will tell you that some of the finest, most expensive meals out there are made with products from Sysco. Sysco is a food DISTRIBUTOR. They put the food on the truck and deliver it. Yes, some of it does come in boxes that say Sysco, but Sysco didn’t make it. I am sorry to be so harsh and to the point, but with the number of references to Sysco food brining meal preparation down, I had to speak up. Furthermore, the reason that so many of the places buy from Sysco is because Sysco is nationwide, and the number one food distributor in the United States. If it were true that Sysco food was so terrible, I highly dobut they would service many of the finest restaurants in the country. No, I do not work for Sysco. It is true that Sysco has several “tiers” or quality levels of products, as does your local grocery store. If you want to pay for bologna, that’s what you going to get, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t have the option to buy procuitto.
    Last note on meal prep- This is a good idea for a lot of people. It is important to bring dinner back to the table. Everyone always say, “Things just ain’t like they used to be.” Wanna know why? People are to busy to even sit down and share a meal anymore. If meal preparation can help people do that, and it has, why is it such a terrible thing? It may not be for the chef or the food snob, but some of us just want to eat with our family and have it be something beyond hamburger helper or pizza. I think what I witnessed on the long list of comments I read is what we call “Group Think”. And it’s not healthly. And this preying on the guilt of parents that some speak of is called “marketing” and if it works, so be it. Besides, we all know that no one can really make us feel guilty if we have no reason to feel guilty. It is all part of commerce, capitalism, and the American dream.
    God Bless the USA and good luck to all of you meal preperation owners and customers out there.

    Comment by Shay — January 23, 2007 #

  45. Cracks me up that all you naysayers about meal prep have never tried it. Go try it. Then rip it to shreds based upon evidence and not half baked opinion. I work for a living. The idea of spending half of my weekend shopping and putting together meals for my family is not appealing. Maybe I can spend the other half of the weekend going to KMart, buying motor oil, crawling under the car and doing an oil change, then driving to the city dump to dispose of the oil — Hey it’s not that hard, my dad used to change the oil in our family car! Or I can spend half an hour at Jiffy Lube. I guess it really comes down to how you want to spend your time away from the office. For lucky folks who are not stuck in an office all week, well, that’s one thing…for the rest of us, well we all have our priority and likes and dislikes. Sorry to ramble … point is, try it before you rip it.

    Comment by Charlotte Gilberto — March 29, 2007 #

  46. I agree with Shay, I too happen to be an owner of a Meal Assembly Kitchen FRANCHISE.
    Franchise in my world is not a dirty word. I too am a freelance writer and have worked in the culinary industry for 30 years. I was a personal chef for 10 of those years. I worked on both coasts as a personal chef and it cracks me up how some “chefs” and even fellow foodies are such snobs about food. Barb the guy that you quoted is a prime example of people snickering about Sysco and he has NO clue that he’s been eating food from Sysco every time he goes into a restaurant.
    I worked as a personal chef to help time deprived Mom’s working in home or out to get delicious nutritional dinners on the table. Unfortunately for most people 12 entrees that has 6 servings would be more than double what it costs to come into my MAK. Do I make a lot of money? Nope, but I am still in the business of making sure the families in my community can eat together AND provide them with quality food at a fair price. Why is that such a horrible thing to aspire to?
    Complaining about paying $25 dollars for a meatloaf, are you seriously kidding me? How about the savings of time for Mom or Dad? Have you ever sat down and figured how much time it takes to make the menu, go to the grocery store, the time it takes to store/put way the food, prepping the food for cooking, cooking the food, cleaning up after the meal. Not to mention the meat you bought at such a good price three months ago and just found it in your freezer with freezer burn or refrigerator rotting and moldy because you didn’t have the energy to cook it once you got home from dinner that week and ended up with pizza or Mickey D’s. It saved you boat loads of money when you threw it out because it didn’t get made into that delicious meal you imagined you had time to make when you stood there looking at it in the grocery store.
    Yeah I know you all out there are Martha Stewart and make everything from scratch right? MAK’s are no difference then the packaged food you all buy at your local supermarket, whether it’s Whole Foods, Wild Oats, or Trader Joes and unless you are that rare throw back from the 60’s who grows ALL their own food, butchers their own meat and makes their own clothes;You ALL buy processed food. Have you ever thought about where tofu comes from, how about Morning Star meatless chicken patties.
    Let’s move on to Guiltless Gourmet snacky cracky’s or Amy’s frozen Dinners, dried pasta, Whole Food prepped food, Trader Joes refrigerator section or freezer dinners. It doesn’t matter whether it’s organic or not, folks it has been processed by someone somewhere because it is no longer in it natural state.
    You are all kidding yourself and sticking your noses up in the air for no reason except ignorance of what MKA’s do and how they benefit thousands of families across the country.
    I buy all of our meat fresh and cut it myself in my prep kitchen. I offer my friends in my MKA the same quality I feed my family. If I wouldn’t feed it to my family the folks who grace me at my MAK don’t get it either.
    Remember I am a professional chef as well so my family knows what the best tastes like and continue to get it whether it’s made in my work kitchen or my home kitchen.
    Sysco……sigh again I have to agree with Shay, EVERY fine restaurant in the country buys food from Sysco. Sysco is not a dirty word, but folks who use sysco need to know that they control the quality they get, whether it’s the reliant or the Imperial. At my Sysco house all the chicken is Tyson or Pierce.
    Fish is fresh or flash frozen on the boat and is produced by Phillips amongst other companies. My company lets me as a franchise owner create my own menu every month, no corporate menu for us. We have the freedom to create our own place in the MAK world. If I could fault the industry it’s not making sure that their franchise owners have culinary experience before opening what is virtually a restaurant. The MAK industry is not for lazy people it’s for time deprived people who are tired of walking around the grocery store at 8:00 at night and then face going home and actually making dinner. The compromise is dinner out every night, drive thru, pizza or some other crappy non-nutritious food for their families.
    What is the difference between having a personal chef come into your house and make dinners or stop by my kitchen to make dinners? Absolutely nothing and it costs a heck of a lot less. Are all MAK’s created equal? No they aren’t I happen to believe I own a piece of the best in the industry and we stress family values, eating healthy and watching portion sizes, we were the first and for the most part the ONLY ones to provide our
    folks with Heart Healthy meals, Meals for folks on eating plans and meals made specifically for the little ones, so that Mom and Dad can enjoy an adult meal once in a while and still give the little ones something they will eat and it’s good for them too.
    We try to meet the needs of every family we touch by giving them the food they need and the quality they desire.
    My family personally runs our kitchen and we get to know personally all of the people who come to visit us and make meals for their families, they become our friends. How could I offer my friends less then the best?
    If you go to one of the kitchens in my network and get less then stellar food or service, we want to know about it. My food is my reputation and I value my reputation.
    Give us a try before you dis us BUT realize not all MKA are the same or are created equal.
    Some of us are excellent culinary professionals and know what food quality is and pay attention of are not. Our industry is no different then any other business that we deal with as consumers.

    Comment by Kelly — April 27, 2007 #

  47. I have a home business that I started so I could spend time with my family. In 6 years it has grown so large that I have had to hire 3 employees, a weekly maid service, use a laundry service and easy meal prep services. I work 6 days a week, 10-14 hours a day. I do not want to spend hours to cook a nice meal & then spend another hour cleaning the mess up. Instead me and my granddaughter go to a meal prep once a month & spend a fun 2 hours together putting these meals together. She loves it and I love the time I spend with her. Then each evening I spend 20-30 minutes TOTAL, making a very nice dinner & sitting at the table with my family each night. Before I discovered this service, our dinners were fast food, frozen or out of a box.

    This service has allowed us to enjoy healthy wonderful family dinners together. Sunday is my only day off. I have no wish to spend that entire day in a kitchen. I choose instead to spend quality time doing fun things with my family and I think that makes me a great mother, grandmother and wife!

    Comment by Mary Lee — June 11, 2007 #

  48. I agree with the others who say don’t knock it before you try it! I started going to a dinner assembly place after I had my first son. Recovering from a complicated pregnancy and birth, working full time, and taking care of a new baby when I came home… it was just too much for me to have dinner on the table when I am not a great cook to begin with!

    The meal assembly place I went to uses fresh ingedients (except some of the meat is frozen) for the most part and some recipes are better than others. You learn as you go what not to order again (though that list is small). My husband was even willing and able to get dinner going or prepare it the whole way through when the instructions were so easily accessible on the outside of my prepared meals. After going there for a few months to help supplement the few meals I know how to whip up quickly and easily, I had more of a handle on the rest of my world and was confident enough to try more cooking on my own. It was a lifesaver for us – saved us from frozen pizzas and takeout nights – while we needed it.

    Now that I am getting ready to have another child, I plan to stock up in the last months of my pregnancy so dinner prep is easy again for us while we learn to juggle two children/work/house/etc.

    If I was blessed with the ability and knowledge of how to cook effortlessly and plan interesting and healthy menus on my own or was married to someone who could, I might not ever consider going to a meal assembly place. But I’m not. I’m not a great cook, I am not good at planning menus. Hell, even an organized trip to the grocery store takes me over and hour on a good day! So two hours at a meal assembly place one Saturday a month is a god send for me and my family! Thank goodness for these businesses!

    Comment by Joelene — August 22, 2007 #

  49. [...] The comments are as recent as August 2007 and there are plenty of people on both sides of the fence. There are great points from both sides and I think it’s worth checking out because our customers are probably saying the same things… Tigers and Strawberries – Read the whole blog entry here: [...]

    Pingback by Meal Assembly Watch » Stepping Out To Make a Home-Cooked Meal — October 12, 2007 #

  50. I would just like everyone to know that I have seen a number of these types of businesses around that do the same thing, only the ingredients they use are ORGANIC. Given the increasing market out there for organics, it’s only a matter of time for the organic MAK to become widespread. And, for me, since I have an hour plus commute each way to work (living closer to work would be unaffordable), and whose husband’s cooking skills are barely above boiling water, the MAK is at least a little better than a life of frozen foods, dinner in a box, fast food, or restaurant cuisine as a way of life. Perhaps when my 7 year old is a little older, he can cook dinner from scratch, but, until then, the MAK is a big help to me. As the Indian saying goes, don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my moccasins….

    Comment by Ruth O. — February 17, 2008 #

  51. Looks like a promising business opportunity. Lots of helpful information.

    Comment by ViSalus — October 20, 2008 #

  52. That it was wonderful to study through your article. I personally appreciated the short while i put in reading through it and want to leave a comment to state that….Best wishes

    Comment by Albern — February 9, 2012 #

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