Building a New Model for Meal Assembly (Online Exclusive) January 1, 2009

Just a few years ago, meal-assembly outlets like Dream Dinners, Let’s Dish, Dinner by Design, and Super Suppers were being touted as the next big thing in fresh prepared foods. Such venues allow busy consumers to spend a few hours—and typically about $200+- to pull together a dozen or so family-size meals that can then be taken home, frozen, and served up in the weeks that follow. 

The meal-assembly concept sounded like something that busy moms would buy into, and, across the country, eager franchisees signed on, opening outlets in 49 states in the years since 2002 when the first location debuted. By 2007, there were 1,353 meal-assembly kitchens nationwide, according to Bert Vermeulen, President of Easy Meal Prep., a Cheyenne, Wyo.–based consulting company.

Americans’ appetite for meal assembly has been less hearty than anticipated, however. It now appears that the industry may be fading as quickly as it blossomed.

As of last month, there were just 867 meal- assembly locations left in the United States, Vermeulen reports. Some disgruntled former franchisees are suing their meal-assembly franchisors, claiming that the franchisors misrepresented their business prospects. The industry shakeout has been fueled by a variety of factors. Many consumers simply don’t grasp the concept, or—even if they do get it—are reluctant to spend the time required to assemble a batch of meals. High overhead costs for meal-assembly operators and lack of customer loyalty are also problems, says Ryan Knoll, a Chicago-based franchise attorney and franchising blogger (http://www.franchisepundit.com/).

Neither Vermeulen nor Knoll is convinced that the ailing meal-assembly industry is completely down and out. The business model is undergoing some fairly major tweaks, however.
“There are going to be some survivors,” Knoll predicts. “I think the ones that survive are going to be the independently owned units that can adapt and offer different services and products.”

Retooling a Business Venture

Independent operator Amy Olson would probably agree. Olson and her business partners—sister Julie Mueller and mother Judy Mueller—opened a meal-assembly kitchen in a Chicago suburb in 2005. It didn’t take the women long to see that they needed to shift gears.

“Very quickly, we noticed that there were some flaws and barriers [to success] in the business model,” says Olson. “We decided to retool the business and close the meal-assembly portion.” Olson, her mother, and her sister found retail space in Chicago’s Ogilvie Transportation Center, a high-traffic commuter rail station, and re-opened their business, Entrees by You, this past October. Fresh, homemade meals like pork tenderloin, chicken piccata, and Szechuan beef and rice are sold refrigerated—ready to be taken home and cooked in the oven or on the stovetop. “Cooking your meal fresh at home instead of just reheating an already-cooked meal ensures it freshness and will not compromise its quality,” Entrees by You promotional material states. “It’s a different niche than reheating a Boston Market dinner,” Olson adds.

Meal components are individually packaged in heat-sealed polybags, says Olson. At-home prep times for the meals range from 15 min on the stovetop for whitefish in tomato sauce or penne pasta with chicken to 60 min in the oven for cheese lasagna. Most entrees come in two sizes—regular, which serves 2–3 people, and large, which feeds 4–6. Prices for the regular-size entrees begin at $14.95. Business has been building steadily, Olson says, while acknowledging that “the economic downturn doesn’t help.”

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