- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

Meal-assembly stores, which only two years ago were an unknown concept of preparing meals in a store, throwing them in the freezer and cooking them later, are now opening almost monthly in the D.C. area.

Among the 10 chains operating in the D.C. area, 19 stores have opened since late 2004, and 14 more are scheduled to open by the fall.

Store owners and industry analysts say the concept’s growth has been spurred by new concerns about healthy eating, families’ busy lifestyles and recent studies suggesting that children who eat dinner with their families do better in school.

“The lifestyle people lead, especially in the D.C. metro area, demand this kind of a service,” said Jennifer Thorp-Hemann, owner of the Dream Dinners store in Rockville, where the menu includes dishes such as dijon and black pepper flank steak and apricot-glazed pork chops with corn fritters.

“Everyone works hard, they have kids in many activities, the commute times are long. On top of that, people still want the best things for their families.”

Nearly 300 companies — all with quirky monikers playing off the words “dinner,” “supper” or “thyme” — have opened 775 meal-assembly stores throughout the country since Dream Dinners opened the first in Washington state in 2002, according to the Easy Meal Prep Association, a Cheyenne, Wyo., trade group.

Nationwide, meal-assembly stores are expected to open at a rate of more than one per day, and revenue is expected to more than double to $270 million this year, according to the trade group. The industry is expected to pull in $1.1 billion by 2010.

Some parents say dinner — because it’s after a long day of children’s activities — is one of the biggest obstacles of the day.

“I’ve been in the car [driving to Tae-kwon-do and swimming lessons] since 4, and now it’s 7, and I’ve got nothing for dinner,” Beth Collins of Gaithersburg said of why she assembled meals at Thyme Out in Gaithersburg earlier this month.

That night, she heated up frozen spaghetti for her family before going to Thyme Out, where she and a group of friends assembled meals such as nacho chicken crunch with tomato black bean rice during a private party.

At Thyme Out, like at the other meal-assembly stores, customers assemble the meals’ ingredients in the store and put them in the freezer at home. When they’re ready to cook the meals, they defrost the ingredients and bake, boil or broil them.

All of the stores say their clientele ranges from busy parents to cooking-fatigued empty nesters to cooking-averse singles, but all cater to families with a pricing system of six servings of eight or 12 different meals for about $160 or $210, respectively.

The No. 1 client is the “guilty, busy parent,” said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago food industry consulting company. “It’s ‘look, I did cook for you, even if I did have some help.’”

For now, local meal-assembly stores — including Dream Dinners, Super Suppers, Let’s Eat, Easy Dinners, Dinner Done, Dinner My Way, Dishing Up Dinner and Meal Makers — are concentrated in the suburbs but starting to inch closer to the District.

Let’s Dish, the biggest player in the Washington area and the first to open locally, opened the first meal-assembly store inside the Capital Beltway just last month and is looking at a D.C. location by the end of 2007, said Alexa Corcoran, co-owner of the seven Let’s Dish stores in the Washington area.

Despite the industry’s quick growth, its members say they’re selling more than a fad.

“I see it as a trend with staying power, said Judie Byrd, founder of the Super Suppers chain. “Feeding your families is not a passing trend.”

Mrs. Byrd, whose chain operates a Mount Airy, Md., store with plans to open six more in the area, said the meal-assembly-store boom is peaking at the right time.

“I don’t know if 10 years ago or 15 years ago it would have worked,” Mrs. Byrd said. “Moms weren’t yet desperate.”

Others aren’t so sure about the industry’s staying power.

“There’s a lot going for it, but is there going to be a wear-off factor and if so, when in the future?” Mr. Paul said. “It is still frozen food when all is said and done.”

Mr. Paul said the industry is taking a small, immeasurable nibble out of restaurant and grocery store sales.

“It’s a substitute for buying a frozen meal at the grocery store … or running to Applebee’s,” he said. “It’s so small, it’s not significant in terms of injuring the retail side or restaurant side.”

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