Just a few years ago, the meal-assembly business was the "next big thing." Kitchens popped up in strip malls over the country where busy people looking to save time and money could put together a bunch of meals to cook at home later.
At the height of the trend, about 1,400 meal-assembly kitchens had been in business. But now some of them are retooling the idea amid competition from big grocery store chains.
The idea is pretty simple: you pay $150 or so for a big pile of chopped ingredients. Then you spend a few hours in a restaurant-style kitchen putting together a week's worth of ready-to-cook meals you take home and stick in the freezer.
Paige Ohliger first heard about meal assembly four years ago when she and a few friends gathered at home for their own marathon cooking sessions. They soon became business partners and started Time for Dinner — a storefront kitchen in a busy suburban St. Louis strip mall.
That they're still thriving in this economy is a testament to hard work and a good location. Ohliger also says as an independent business, it's easier to build loyalty.
"If you build a relationship with your customer base, then you're set," Ohliger says. "Our customers come in and say 'I really want to have the artisan chicken again,' and we can put that on our menu. So we can respond pretty quickly."
Ohilger says she's seen at least nine local competitors come and go since she began. But now she has new competition with deep pockets and a much bigger pantry. The Midwestern grocery chain Schnuck's has installed food-assembly kitchens at two of its St. Louis stores. They look like the sets on cable cooking shows, warmly lit and inviting, with long stainless steel prep tables.
Schnucks hopes to attract more customers like Leslie Sebo, who says she has found that cooking dishes to take home and freeze is cheaper than takeout and healthier than a salty, pre-packaged microwave dinner.
Randy Wedel, the company's marketing executive, says meal assembly is still an experiment for the grocery chain.
"We go in with our eyes open. We have research. We have statistics. We have all of that stuff. But we temper our rollout of these things to make sure we're onto a good business concept," Wedel says.
Schnucks is not the first grocery chain to embrace meal assembly. In the South, Piggly Wiggly and Publix jumped in last year.
The concept has been around for almost a decade, but overall growth has hit a plateau. And a trade group says many of the nation's storefront kitchens have scrapped do-it-yourself cooking altogether.
Figures from the Easy Meal Prep Association show that about half are going with a tried-and-true product that began in supermarkets: oven-ready packaged meals assembled by employees, not customers.
The small businesses say they are able to offer more customization in their meals than the big boys — like going easy on the onions in that chicken cacciatore.
But given today's high food prices, grocery consultant David Livingston says big supermarkets might just discover a new profit center with do-it-yourself prepared meals.
"Normally, like your meat department, you should normally get a 30 to 40 percent gross margin. And then at prepared foods, we're probably looking at between 50 and 80 percent," Livingston says.
While grocery stores could see some success with meal assembly, Livingston says it will likely remain a niche business — popular with health- and budget-conscious people who don't mind spending a little time in a corporate kitchen for a home-cooked meal.
Matt Sepic reports from member station KWMU in St. Louis.