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Meal Assembly Centers Enter
Supermarket Arena: Are YOU Prepared?

Few things important happen in the intersection between foodservice and retail without Sharon Olson of Olson Communications in Chicago giving us an early warning, and she has been beating the drums regarding the rapid roll-out of Meal Assembly Centers, otherwise known as MACs. This concept involves stores where consumers prepare meals and take them home to freeze immediately, then cook and serve later. The stores provide the prepped ingredients, recipes, preparation equipment and do the clean up.

It is a booming field with its own association, The Easy Meal Prep Association, and Sharon Olson has been working with the Pundit’s sister publication, DELI BUSINESS, to both explore the dynamics of these operations and to inquire as to the relevancy of the model to the supermarket and supercenter.

First Sharon wrote an intriguing column, Cashing In On Cook & Carry for DELI BUSINESS, which highlighted the six trends driving this new industry:

CONVENIENCE — The press talks about the MAC experience of parties and complimentary wine, but the consumers we spoke with said the convenience was the big benefit. Without exception, consumers loved the idea of assembling a meal, walking away from the mess and leaving it for someone else to clean up. Some MACs even offer fully prepared refrigerated or frozen meals for the really time-starved.

Local advertising and good websites make these centers easy to find, but most of our consumers learned about their favorite MAC from friends.

ENTERTAINMENT — When we asked consumers about the experience, we were told, “The experience definitely adds value, but the convenience is unbeatable.” We were also told, “It’s fun to pretend like you’re on a cooking show.”

EMOTIONAL SATISFACTION — The emotional gratification of having a hand in preparing a meal is a benefit for consumers. Most noted they felt this food was fresher and more healthful than frozen dinners or restaurant food. They liked being in control and able to use more or less seasoning to their own taste to satisfy their family. Incredibly clean and inviting facilities added to the appeal.

NUTRITION — Consumers told us nutrition was an afterthought. However, fresh ingredients and mostly baked or grilled entrées provided a halo of healthfulness.

VALUE — Most consumers looked at MACs as an alternative to restaurants or takeout, so a per-serving cost of up to $3.50 for an entrée seemed reasonable. All noted it was more expensive than cooking at home, but not having to clean up was a huge time saver. Most noted side dishes were suggested but not included so additional shopping and planning were required.

VARIETY — Classic comfort foods with an interesting twist appeal to consumers. They talked about pork chops made with red wine, dried cranberries and raisins, ingredients they would not usually have at home. Others talked about spices and rubs they would not typically purchase.

Then, Sharon authored a DELI BUSINESS cover story entitled, New Guy In Town Feeds Families, which grew out of a consumer research study conducted by Olson Communications. Among other things, the piece highlighted seven things consumers reported liking about their experience with Meal Assembly Centers:

NO MESS, QUICK AND EASY: In the MAC focus group, everyone loved two things: walking away from the mess and the time-saving of having the planning, shopping and prep done for them.

GOOD VALUE: They also approved of the fresh ingredients in their meals and that help was handy if they needed it. Overwhelmingly, they felt their MAC meals were a good value, cheaper than a restaurant meal and at least as healthful as one, if not more. Costs ranged from $3 to $4 per meal per person for 12 meals that serve four to six. Some outlets offer smaller-sized portions for two to three and charge proportionally less. Virtually all operations are happy to have customers split meals up between themselves.

INTERESTING DISHES: The MAC users enjoyed the new flavors in their dishes, which they described as having interesting flavors that were not overpowering or overly salty. This is seen as clearly superior to “speed scratch” alternatives, such as flavor packets from supermarkets. Favorites from the group included new tastes such as honey lime chicken, Caribbean pork chops and Moroccan chicken, which paired chicken breasts with couscous, almonds, raisins and mint. Comfort foods also were well received, with pizzas “as good as delivery and even quicker,” kielbasa sausage with potatoes and meatball sandwiches getting raves for being easy and tasting homemade.

FREEZING IS OK: No one had a problem with freezing their meals and did not feel it changed the meal quality. However, they realized the meals probably should be cooked within a month.

“MINE” AND WHAT THEY DID NOT SAY: An extremely important facet of MACs is that customers can customize their meals. According to one consumer, “I can control the fat and salt while I am assembling them.” And what they did not say, but what can be inferred, is that because of this, they feel that they are really cooking. All this assembling, heating and putting on plate at the dinner table is their version of “cooking.” Kitchen veterans would be more likely to call it “convenience cooking.” But today’s consumers consider it just as real as the scratch cooking done 50 years ago. The emotional satisfaction of bringing a meal to the family table is just as real a cooking experience for today’s families as cooking from scratch was for their grandmothers.

COMPARED TO HOME COOKING: When the group compared a MAC meal to their own scratch cooking, they said their MAC meals were more expensive (but worth it) and more interesting, though they suspected their home cooking was more healthful.

COMPARED TO GROCERIES AND DELIS: When the focus group was asked to compare MAC meals to a cooked entrée from a grocery store or deli, the participants felt their MAC meals were clearly superior on key counts. They appreciated knowing exactly what was in their MAC meals, which they felt were more healthful, better tasting, more interesting, fresher and better quality than prepared foods from the grocery store.

Lee Smith, Publisher of DELI BUSINESS, writing in her regular Publisher’s Insights column, pointed out that that Meal Assembly Centers are both an important phenomenon and a possible opportunity for food retailers:

Meal Assemble Centers are growing, and the reason they are growing is explained through a proprietary research project done by Olson Communications, headquartered in Chicago, IL. Getting in the game could be a real winner for retailers looking for something new that will differentiate them from the competition. Pay attention to this one.

The Pundit, writing in DELI BUSINESS, although urging experimentation at supermarkets, weighed in with a piece entitled Meal Assembly Delis, in which we expressed caution about the new phenomenon:

The problem is that we don’t yet know if MACs are viable. As the article points out, they are booming — but almost all are franchises, and the small footprint of most of these stores allows them to open easily in many locations. In addition, it is an easy concept to understand, and most people looking to start a business would find this concept accessible.

But are these stores earning an adequate return on capital?

Do the families that own them earn an acceptable wage for their work? We really have no idea.

Now comes word from the Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company and Dream Dinners — a Seattle-based Meal Assembly Center company founded in 2002, which expects to have more than 200 Dream Dinners locations around the country by early 2007 — that they are going to try placing some Meal Assembly Centers in-store:

Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company (Piggly Wiggly) announced today it has entered into a Licensing agreement with Dream Dinners, the pioneer of the fast-growing Family Meal Preparation industry. This marks the first Dream Dinners concept located within a grocery store — combining the art of family meal preparation directly with a grocery store chain.

The Dream Dinners concept helps busy families to create healthy, home cooked meals. The partnership with Piggly Wiggly offers customers better time efficiency with the availability to shop for additional items for each meal.

In addition, customers can pick up everyday items right there in the store — whether a dessert, flowers, wine, and much more.

The first Dream Dinners/Piggly Wiggly location will launch in early 2007 in Columbia, S.C., at the Forest Park location (4711-1 Forest Drive), and expansion is planned for multiple locations throughout Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

“The partnership was a natural fit for Piggly Wiggly,” said Robert Masche, chief operating officer, Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company. “Whether our guests want to cook a meal from scratch, pick up a prepared Deli Meal-to-Go, or save time and assemble meals through Dream Dinners — now we can provide it all.”

When Dream Dinners was approached by Piggly Wiggly with this opportunity, co-founder Tina Kuna recalls, “We were thrilled. Our companies share the same vision to empower our guests to provide the best options for their families.”

“We are really excited that Piggly Wiggly customers will be able to experience first hand how Dream Dinners will make it easy for them to have a homemade dinner with their families,” added Dream Dinner co-founder Stephanie Allen.

To participate with Dream Dinners, shoppers begin by logging onto to schedule an appointment to prepare meals at a participating Piggly Wiggly. While online, guests have several menu options to choose from. Up to 14 dinners may be chosen, with the menu options changing monthly. At their scheduled time, guests go to the Dream Dinners section at Piggly Wiggly to prepare the meals using ingredients that have already been sliced, diced and chopped for easy assembly. The meals are then taken home and frozen, to be thawed and cooked as needed.

It is an exciting concept, and we wish both companies well in their efforts. The Olson Communications study did ask consumers how they would feel about such a concept in their supermarkets and it wasn’t favorable:

Consumers asked how they might feel about this kind of service from their favorite supermarket did not seem to think it would work. Reasons included the isolated physical space and sanitation requirements that made them feel comfortable in a meal assembly center.

However, Sharon also suggested three ways retailers might be able to respond to the Meal Assembly Center trend:

Here are few things to consider to respond to your time-starved customers’ needs for convenience, value and variety and to get your share of the meal solution business.

  • RE-ENGINEERED PHYSICAL SPACE — If you have space to run consumer cooking classes, think how easily some might become do-it-yourself dinner solutions with the introduction of some stainless steel prep tables on wheels.
  • CHEF-INSPIRED ETHNIC MEALS — If you have a chef or use local chefs as resources, think how you can take advantage of their expertise and ability to work with your customers. For example, your customers might enjoy taking home a week’s worth of Mediterranean fare they prepare in your store with your chef’s supervision.
  • SENSATIONAL SIDES — Fill the gap in what MACs do not offer — complete meal solutions with sides. Put together the entire package for your customers in the deli. Do not ask them to shop the entire store to pick up sides and salads to accompany their creation.

The Pundit thinks it is well worth an experiment but suspects that simply opening a Meal Assembly Center franchise in a store isn’t taking full advantage of a supermarket’s competitive edge.

For example, many Meal Assembly Centers often offer set menus every month and require advance ordering. You see in the release that Dream Dinners requires people to log in on a computer and order selections from a monthly menu from home. This is partly so the centers can buy and prep the food. Supermarkets offer the advantage of having all the food in the world right at the doorstep. They can support much wider menu options than free-standing stores.

Also, supermarkets have an incentive to keep people in the stores longer. One wonders if they could actually cook the food for consumers and blast freeze it while consumers do other shopping?

Certainly marketing and merchandising will be important. If a consumer signs up to make a particular entrée, selling that consumer appropriate beverages, side dishes, salads, bakery items, etc., could make the experience both superior for the consumer and profitable for the retailer.

One unspoken concern hanging over this concept is food safety. The FDA states:

Never leave seafood or other perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours — or, for more than 1 hour when temperatures are above 90° F. Bacteria that can cause illness grow quickly at warm temperatures (temperatures between 40° F and 140° F).

Although most of the items made have a “kill step” as they get cooked, inadequate cooking or cross-contamination in the kitchen could easily cause a problem if someone is driving across Dallas in the hot summer to pick up the kids at school, stop at the post office, etc.

These MAC stores are still run by small companies. Supermarkets, with access to food safety expertise, should look at this subject and consider requiring that product be taken from the store in insulated coolers with ice packs.

But if supermarkets keep it safe, keep it clean and innovate to take advantage of the supermarket’s unique resources, this may be an opportunity whose time has come.

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