Natural Foods Merchandiser

Meal prep a market opportunity

Sitting down to a nutritious, home-cooked meal each night is an ideal that working parents strive for but don?t always achieve.

Enter ?meal assembly,? an idea—and burgeoning new business—with a lot more appeal than its name. Clients, mostly moms, pay $120 to $200 for six to 12 meals (four to six servings per meal) for their families. They make dinners using provided recipes and prewashed and chopped ingredients, put the meals in baking pans or plastic bags, then home to the freezer. Thawing and heating as they go, families feast on dishes like Citrus Seared Salmon and Apple Roasted Pork Tenderloin—a few of the September selections at Dinner by Design, a Grayslake, Ill. meal assembly company.

But while this chain and others like it, such as Dream Dinners, Supper Solutions and Let?s Dish, say they provide nutritious meals, natural or organic ingredients are rare. Many are skeptical of the higher food costs, lack of demand and the appeal of frozen food to the natural and organic consumer.

Price is the biggest challenge to doing meal assembly naturally, says natural foods consultant Steve Rosen of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Rosen Enterprises. ?Conventional boneless chicken is $1.60 a pound,? he says. ?Any kind of clean chicken, without antibiotics [or] hormones, is $3.50 to $4.50 a pound, more for organic.?

Existing meal-assembly kitchens charge less than $4 a serving for a complete meal, making price one of their greatest selling points, along with convenience.

At Westminster, Colo.-based Supper Solutions, enough customers asked for natural choices that eight months ago Red Bird chicken and Coleman beef were added to the lineup, says owner Leanne Deister. Depending on location, 8 percent to 12 percent of customers choose those upgrades, paying $3 extra per meal for beef and $6 more for chicken.

Supper Solutions charges less for Red Bird and Coleman than local natural food stores, Deister says. ?We didn?t need to make money on [those items] because our margins are great on the other side of it.?

Deister?s considering adding more natural and organic items at her 12 locations or making one or two days a month organic meal-making days. She believes customers who want those items are already prepared to pay more for them.

Restaurateur Pat Klinger agrees.

People who eat natural, organic and locally farmed food ?know what it is that they want to put in their body, and it?s not driven by price,? says Pat Klinger, who recently retired from the Portland, Ore.-based Burgerville fast food chain and plans to start a food business.

Freezing is the greatest obstacle to a natural meal-assembly operation, Klinger says. ?In my mind, that?s an oxymoron with fresh food and seasonal food.?

Klinger led product development at Burgerville, using seasonal and locally farmed foods such as Oregon Country Natural Beef, Walla Walla onion rings and huckleberry milkshakes.

A natural meal assembly operation would have to appeal to a wider demographic than the families targeted by the existing meal-assembly business, Klinger says. He also wonders if the novelty of meal assembly will wear off after the first or second visit. But don?t count Klinger out. He says he just likes to put cons on the table before pros.

He?s considered meal assembly among other restaurant concepts, with a larger goal of serving people seasonal, locally farmed foods, including natural and organic foods.

?The opportunity part is that seasonal food is seasonal. Tomatoes in the summer; squash in the winter,? he said. ?The trick, then, is to be able to be creative enough to know and teach people what to do with that rutabaga they bought in the market in November.?

An industry veteran like Klinger may be just the person to pilot natural meal assembly. ?Somebody will do it,? Rosen says. ?There are certainly towns I would try one first. Boulder [Colo.] or Asheville, N.C.?

Meal assembly also seems like a logical fit with natural foods grocers—they already have the relationships with suppliers. But Rosen doesn?t see it happening.

Grocers are focused on sales per square foot, he says, and they would be hard-pressed to generate the revenue from meal assembly needed to justify the space required. And their existing kitchens are an unlikely option, with deli staff preparing food around the clock, although Deister says she?s heard of meal assembly operators renting space in conventional grocery stores. Community rooms or demonstration kitchens—as long as they?re health-department certified—could also fit the bill for meal assembly, using ingredients prepped in the foodservice kitchen.

One of the existing meal-assembly businesses could add a natural and organic option, Rosen says. But, he asks, ?How do you guarantee food is all-natural or organic—that you are not mixing it with conventional [foods]??

Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry consulting firm, thinks existing meal-assembly businesses have the best shot at the natural and organic market. ?I don?t think it would be difficult for any of these [existing businesses] to go organic or natural should there be a demand for it,? he says. But Paul questions the need for a pure-play natural/organic concept. ?You could put me down as skeptical.?

Minneapolis-based Let?s Dish doesn?t provide natural and organic ingredients now, but it will if that?s what customers want, says its new president and chief operating officer Allan Hickok. ?Consumers who care about organic have already demonstrated they?re willing to pay a little more for an organic product,? he says. ?Our pricing structure can be altered to accommodate our cost structure.?

Scientist Steve Stevenson looks at the food business through the lens of sustainable farming. He?s associate director of the Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems at the University of Wisconsin. ?I would think that people who are taking the time to do [meal assembly] could be interested in doing it with high-quality food,? he says. A natural/ organic meal assembly operation would fit nicely between two other food environments gaining in popularity, he says.

Community-supported agriculture and farmers? markets appeal to people already sold on natural and organic foods. On the other end, fast-casual restaurants are reaching consumers who otherwise might not try natural and organic foods.

?When there are multiple contexts, they sort of cross-communicate with each other,? Stevenson says.

Kelly Pate Dwyer is a freelance business writer in Denver.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 10/p. 18, 22

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