« December 2007 Table of Contents
Trend Watch: Meals made easy
Meal-preparation industry prime for explosive growth
By Lauren Kramer
December 01, 2007
The "What's for dinner?" question has been the bane of many
a working parent. As the stressors of dual-income families
continue to mount and their free time diminishes, many are
welcoming the 1,450 meal-preparation stores that have opened
across the country.
Typically, customers select meals from a list of dishes that
rotates on a monthly basis. They make an appointment for a
cooking session, and follow a recipe with the convenience of
ingredients that have already been chopped, diced, cut and
peeled. The customer brings the meals home to refrigerate or
freeze for later use. The meal-center formula appeals to busy
families by eliminating the need for menu planning, grocery
shopping, food preparation and cleanup.
The industry has grown dramatically since the first business
opened in 1999.
"In 2003 the industry took off, with the most dramatic
growth occurring between 2003 and 2007," says Bert Vermeulen,
founder of the Easy Meal Prep Co. in Cheyenne, Wyo.
There were approximately 1,200 meal-prep stores in the
United States as of January, and the industry is anticipated to
grow at a steady pace, according to the International
Association of Meal Prep Businesses (IAMPB) in Oak Creek, Wis.
The industry is growing so fast those numbers have been bested
by one company. There were only four Easy Meal stores in 2003,
with annual revenues of $7.2 million. Today, total revenue is
at $370 million with 1,450 stores, and by 2010 it is expected
to jump to $629 million and 2,400 stores, according to company
According to Easy Meal, seafood is the fourth-most popular
protein in the meal-preparation industry, after chicken, pork
and beef (the IAMPB doesn't collect statistics).
"The meal preparation businesses have a tendency toward
healthy eating, and seafood is an important part of that,"
At The Prep Kitchen in Freeport, Maine, two out of 14
monthly menu options include seafood, with dishes such as Quick
Tilapia Parmesan, Shrimp Scampi and Salmon with Orange Glaze.
Seafood recipes are becoming more popular, says Wendy Wren,
"I usually have one tilapia fillet recipe and one other
seafood - salmon, tuna or shrimp - each month, and my customers
are becoming more comfortable with it, especially cooking
tilapia because that's not a local fish. Familiarity brings
confidence," she says.
The seafood dishes serve a segment of Wren's customers who
don't eat chicken, beef or pork, "mainly non-vegan
vegetarians," she says.
Nadine Johnson, owner of Sous Kitchen in San Carlos, Calif.,
agrees, though at her store seafood is as popular as other
proteins. Two of the top 10 most popular dishes at the Sous
Kitchen are seafood, says Johnson.
However, the cost of seafood sometimes limits Johnson's
offerings. "It could be [our location] that things are more
expensive," she admits. "We try to price by entrée, and if the
seafood costs more than $7 per pound, I just can't offer it on
my menu. We would love to offer ahi tuna steak, for example,
but we can't. We haven't been able to find a local source that
can give us the quality we need for the price we need to pay.
So instead, we offer shrimp, tilapia, salmon, lobster, sole and
cod. Most of our fish is frozen, but the salmon is fresh."
At Victoria's Kitchen in Wheaton, Ill., owner Vickie Hankes
encounters the same challenge. "As much as I love fresh fish, I
find it cost-prohibitive to work with, and issues with
deterioration, leading to waste, leads me to use other
proteins," says Hankes.
"Yes, I can purchase frozen fish fillets, but none are up to
my taste and texture standards. My business is all about
organic and natural products, so it can be difficult to source
fresh fish with no added preservatives at an affordable
Marcia Hales, CEO of My Girlfriend's Kitchen, a national
chain based in Salt Lake City with 43 franchises, sources most
of her products through Sysco, though some of her locations use
local seafood purveyors.
"We calculate food cost based on our costs in Salt Lake
City," she explains. "We make a suggestion as to retail price,
but each franchise location has the ability to set their own
prices. Typically, our food cost runs anywhere from 35 to 40
percent, depending on the dish."
The average meal-preparation store has an ingredient cost
between 40 and 45 percent of revenues, says Vermeulen. "Thus,
the markup is between 2.2 and 2.5 times the wholesale food cost
from the foodservice supplier. For a restaurant, the equivalent
ratios are 30 to 35 percent food cost, which equals a 3 to 3.3
The availability of seafood in Hales' stores depends on
location. "We have 14 menu items a month, and usually at least
one contains shrimp or seafood," says Hales. "But based on the
region and eating habits in that area, we make available a
number of items for particular stores."
However, the cost of seafood makes it a challenging protein
to work with, says Hales.
"We used to run a lot more salmon than we do now, but in
some parts of the country it's incredibly expensive. Still,
some of our stores will put it back on the menu, despite the
price, because if it's really appealing, it brings customers
in. So it's a double-edged sword."
My Girlfriend's Kitchen offers menu items with catchy names,
such as the Savory Fisherman's Horseradish Crusted Salmon,
Parmesan Tilapia On My Mind and Shrimp Alfredo on the Bayou.
For cost-effectiveness, the company purchases flash-frozen
seafood products like tilapia "because we've got customers
asking for it. The popularity of our seafood varies by store
and region, depending on the customer base they cultivate at a
particular store," Hales says.
Unlike the restaurant industry, which can have substantial
shrink, in the meal-preparation business there is virtually
none, she says.
"Anything not purchased by the end of the week is assembled
and available for people to purchase out of the freezer," Hales
explains. Her company offers Web tools that allow storeowners
to manage their food inventory.
The meal-preparation industry is growing, but it's barely
scratched the surface, Hales insists. "There are still so many
people who haven't heard of meal assembly. We're still in the
infancy stage of educating the general population of what we do
and how it can make their lives easier and better."
Contributing Editor Lauren Kra m er lives in British