Some assembly required
The newest way to get a meal on the table is fast, efficient and a whole lot of fun
August 5, 2005
By BILL MARVEL / The Dallas Morning News
The TV chefs who turn out gourmet dinners so effortlessly have nothing on Briley Casanova, age 10.
Briley — with some help from her mom, Zelda — has just finished preparing a week's worth of entrees and then some.
|Stephanie Apple (left) and Michelle Apple, both of Fort Worth, prepare to roll out dough for Braided Pizza Bread at Super Suppers. The pair made several loaves of the pizza bread.|
She's got Braided Pizza Bread, Sticky Wings with Oriental Sauce, Baby Back Ribs, Cheesy Ravioli, Lemon-Dijon Tilapia with Confetti Rice Pilaf, and Orange-Tarragon Glazed Chicken, all ready for the freezer.
Working side by side, mother and daughter did it all in an hour and 20 minutes.
"It was harder than I thought it would be," Briley says, "because the meat was so cold."
Still, after her first experience in meal preparation, she says that for her next birthday she wants to get all her friends together for another session in the kitchen.
The kitchen in this case belongs to Super Suppers, a Fort Worth-based company that ... well, it's a little complicated to explain just exactly what Super Suppers and other companies like it actually do. Here's the general idea:
You want a good home-cooked meal — not restaurant or takeout, but something you actually prepared and cooked yourself. But you don't want to have to shop for the ingredients. You don't want to chop and dice.
And especially, you don't want to clean up the mess afterward.
|Dishes such as Braided Pizza Bread (above) and Asian Beef and Vegetable Wraps (below) go in the freezer, ready to come out for dinner on short notice.
So you use someone else's kitchen. When you get there everything is ready and laid out: the meats and vegetables, spices and sauces, mixing bowls and measuring cups. And recipes, with step-by-step instructions that even a 10-year-old can follow. You pour yourself a glass of wine or iced tea, you sample some hors d'oeuvres, you mingle and chat. Then you set to work.
Within two hours you emerge with six or a dozen entrees, which you take home and freeze.
For dinner simply defrost, cook and set on the table. Serves four to six.
All this goes by the name "meal assembly," which makes it sound like some kind of heavy industry. But it's really hands-on, relaxed, and very personal.
The "stores," as they are called, are clean, cheery places. The "classes" are less like cooking lessons than house parties, with free wine or soft drinks and snacks.
And it's one of the fastest-growing businesses in the country. At the start of the year there were some 200 meal-assembly outlets, according to Bert Vermeulen, president of the Ohio-based Easy Meal Preparation Association. By the end of the year, he expects the number will more than double.
In a few years there'll be thousands, predicts Sam Hance, who supervises franchise sales for Super Supper (125 franchises in 23 states; Dream Dinners, the other big meal-assembly business, has 59 locations in 17 states).
Makin' Meals, an independent shop, recently opened in tiny Forney, east of Dallas.
Tribal societies, utopian communes and religious communities have communal kitchens because they encourage togetherness while saving time, energy and food.
But the new communal kitchen, the meal-assembly store, is driven by single parents, by empty-nesters and working couples and just ordinary families who want to sit around a table and eat something that came from the stove, not a takeout carton.
On a Saturday afternoon, most of those at Super Suppers on Lemmon Avenue work in the American Airlines purchasing department, so this is a kind of office party away from the office.
Marilyn Garrett organized the occasion, she says, "to hang with my friends."
They did it before and had a good time and the food was great, she says. And frankly, "a lot of us are single and don't cook that well."
That might include Russ Brown, who says he can whip up a few simple things such as spaghetti. He's elbow-deep in a bowl of bean sprouts, shredded beef, soy sauce and other ingredients, mixing the filling for Asian wraps, a dish he's never tried before.
Nearby, co-worker Tammy Sartain has spread three kinds of cheese, tomato sauce, sausage and olives across pizza dough. "Pizza from scratch at home?" she laughs. "Forget about it!"
She says most of the entrees here are more elaborate than anything she'd try on her own. "There's more variety. My family is going to like this."
Dream Dinners in south Arlington draws a slightly different crowd that includes older couples and empty-nesters.
For example, Bill Johnson, who reads the instructions while his wife, Jane, measures the ingredients for Salisbury steak with potatoes.
"This is a neat concept," he says. "Where was it when we were raising our children?"
"I live alone," says Patsy Johnston as she sprinkles breadcrumbs in a pan for Italian Parmesan chicken. "But I like to have something in the refrigerator so that after church I can invite somebody over for dinner."
But the future of the meal-assembly business rests with Monica Coney and millions of women just like her.
A single mom, Ms. Coney lives in Arlington with her two teenage kids, but she works in Dallas.
"Actually these are better meals than I could cook myself," she says, relaxing with a cup of coffee after assembling Peach-Glazed Boneless Pork Chops and before tackling Canadian Bacon-and-Cheese Calzones.
"Every morning I pull one of the entrees out of the freezer," she says. "In the afternoon I call the kids and tell them to put it in the oven."
The mom factor
"Our core customer is pretty much the busy mom," says Stephanie Allen, the Snohomish, Wash., caterer who started Dream Dinners in 2002 because she was herself a busy mom.
"Here I was providing great meals for strangers, but not for my own family," says Ms. Allen. So she set an evening aside and, with a friend, put together a week's worth of entrees. Friends heard about it and wanted in.
|Jennifer Browne (left) and Lindsay Edwards assemble ingredients for a cooking session at the Arlington Dream Dinners store. "Our core customer is pretty much the busy mom," says Stephanie Allen, the founder of Dream Dinnners.|
"I said, 'Sure, bring a bottle of wine,'" she says.
By the end of a month she had held five sessions. Then she opened a second kitchen.
A year and a half later, Dream Dinners was selling franchises.
Meanwhile in Fort Worth, Judie Byrd, who had been offering gourmet cooking classes to busy moms for years, was thinking the same thoughts.
"One night I was teaching a class called 20 Minutes From Grocery Bag to Dinner Table," she says. "Afterwards a handful came up and said, 'These are great recipes, but we still have to do the shopping and the prep.'"
Ms. Byrd and several of her assistants thought it over. What if they did the shopping and the prep and the busy moms constructed the meals in her kitchen? What if they constructed a month of meals?
"Fifteen years ago it wouldn't have worked. Families were not that sick of eating out. You didn't have the problem of obesity that you do now. Moms are now tired of feeding their kids fast food. They've heard of the old-fashioned idea of getting kids around the dinner table and listening to them talk."
Own your own
Franchise owners tend to be former customers who liked the idea and saw the future.
Elizabeth Watts was one of Judie Byrd's assistants. She and fiancé Keith Fletcher bought one of the first franchises and opened the Lemmon Avenue store. Mother-daughter team Tina Fuller-Jones and Brittany Fuller were regulars at the Grapevine Dream Dinners before they bought the Arlington franchise.
|How easy is it? So easy that 10-year-old Briley Casanova wants her next birthday party to be at Super Suppers. Above, Zelda Casanova gives Briley a few tips on handling a rolling pin.|
"The franchises are doing an amazing thing," says food historian Rachel Laudan, who wrote about "Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food" in the inaugural issue of the journal Gastronomica.
She says it's hard for working wives to cook the same way they used to make clothes — at home, from scratch.
"But if she doesn't do it, she feels terribly guilty."
Meal assembly provides an out. "She sets aside one evening a week, or a month. She visits with her friends, she has hors d'oeuvres.
"But she's still sitting around the table with her family serving her own food during the rest of the week. She's solved the practical problem as well as the ethical problem."