A year ago, Ruth Lundquist and Darcy Olson were working moms struggling to get dinner on the table for their families. Today the suburban Minneapolis, Minn., residents are putting dinner on the table for hundreds of people every month. Their new business, Let's Dish, is one of a growing number of meal-assembly services across the U.S. that help busy amateur chefs whip up a month of gourmet entrees in a couple of hours.
Here's how the idea works: customers sign up for an assembly session with a preset menu. They come in and make their way around assembly stations, measuring prepared ingredients and putting them into plastic bags or disposable cooking pans. Everything is prechopped. Customers can tailor the dishes to their families' needs.
Entrees range widely, from coconut curry rice with shrimp to chipotle chicken with pintos and rice. All cooking is done at home (methods include stir-fry and using a crockpot or oven). The cost is less than $200, and at the end of two hours, customers go home with as many as 12 dishes for four to six people, ready for the freezer. When dinnertime comes, the meals are popped out of the freezer and cooked.
The idea has spread by word of mouth and news coverage. In the Seattle area, sisters Donna Calf Robe and Debora Graham have opened The Delicious Dish, a meal-assembly business that includes a wine shop. In Fargo, N.D., Deb Evenson, Nancy Kasper and Jean Ostrom-Blonigen dreamed up What's For Dinner while sitting at their sons' sports activities (they have seven sons among them). And there's the grandmother of the idea, Dream Dinners, a company based in Snohomish, Wash., that was launched in 2002 as a monthly gathering of the friends of former caterer Stephanie Firchau and has blossomed into 32 franchises across 11 states from California to North Carolina. "Our mission is really to get families back to the dinner table," says Tina Kuna, Firchau's partner and a mother of three kids, ages 8, 16 and 18. "I think society was just screaming for something to help relieve one of the stresses."
Most customers for the prefab meals are women. A few men show up, some with their wives as a date night. Then there are the people making meals for their elderly parents or college students looking to restock their refrigerators. Taste and convenience are the main draws. Says Laurie Stoltenberg, 40, of suburban Minneapolis, a mother of three with her own jewelry-bead business and a monthly customer of Let's Dish: "I like the idea that I'm putting a meal on the table that looks like I'm cooking from scratch--which I did, only not that night."