- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

CICERO, N.Y.

Jill Fitzgerald has four children ranging in age from 11 months to 10 years. She 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,” said Mrs. Fitzgerald, a stay-at-home mom from Oswego. “I’m a master at pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches.”

But for a few weeks, Mrs. Fitzgerald’s family was dining in style — crockpot cranberry chicken, Italian herb-crusted pork chops, cheese-stuffed mini meatloaf, baked salmon Dijon and an assortment of other gourmet-style meals.

Mrs. Fitzgerald has discovered what millions of other pressed-for-time American cooks have learned — the meal-assembly kitchen, which Entrepreneur magazine identified as “hands down, among the top franchising trends for this year.”

The appeal for people like Mrs. Fitzgerald is there is no planning, shopping or cleaning up because someone else is doing all that dirty work. The ingredients are pre-cut, pre-measured and precooked, if necessary. Just follow a recipe card, prepare each meal in an aluminum pan to be stored in the freezer at home, cook and serve as a “homemade meal.”

The first meal-assembly store in central New York, Make and Take Gourmet, opened in this northern Syracuse suburb in May. Owner Michele Bellso is already opening two new stores, one in an eastern suburb and another in Rochester. Two more are in the planning stages.

“I thought the concept was brilliant because it’s all about convenience. No one has time to cook anymore,” said Mrs. Bellso, 46, who owns an advertising firm her husband now runs and has a 3-year-old daughter at home.

Mrs. Bellso’s success is the story of the fledgling meal-assembly industry in a nutshell.

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.

Today, there are more than 1,000 meal-assembly outlets in the United States and Canada, said Bert Vermeulen, executive director of the Easy Meal Prep Association, an industry trade group. Those stores will earn about $270 million this year, Mr. Vermeulen said.

Dream Dinners has 161 franchises with 35 more under construction. Super Suppers, which opened in Fort Worth, Texas, 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, Mr. Vermeulen said.

He predicts 3,000 stores in the U.S. 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 persons, 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.

Restaurants and supermarkets have been experimenting with ways to cater to consumers by offering prepared meals to go or for curbside pickup, said Debra Perosio, a lecturer on the food industry at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology.

“This is the next generation of convenience meals for consumers,” Miss 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,” Miss 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 Mrs. Bellso’s store, customers register online for a two-hour session to make six or 12 meals from a menu of 16 choices that changes monthly. Each of the 10 fully outfitted stations at Make and Take Gourmet is set up to make two recipes. Each meal takes five to 10 minutes to put together.

Mrs. Bellso encourages customers to customize her recipes, piling on ingredients they like and omitting ones they don’t. The only item that is portion-controlled is the meat.

“This is so simple, it’s beautiful. I can’t believe what I’m accomplishing here in two hours,” said Sheridan Simmons of Liverpool, N.Y., who does the bulk of the cooking for his wife and two children, ages 7 and 15.

On this day, Mr. Simmons was stuffing — rather overstuffing — calzones, one of the menu items checked off by his children.

Mrs. 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.

For many, visiting a meal-assembly kitchen is as much a social outing as it is work. Donalea Landes, a federal safety inspector, brought her scrapbook club on a recent day.

“I’m not big on cooking. But doing it like this, you don’t even feel like you’re working,” she said. “We gossip. We joke around. Before you know it, the two hours are up and you’ve got meals for the month. You go home feeling relaxed and revived — and try saying that after spending a day at home in the kitchen.”

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