One of the best cooking experiences of my life outside my own home happened in Mexico’s Acapulco Princess Hotel. Hold on. Yes, the tropical scenery, great beaches and the white caps of the Pacific Ocean sweetened the experience mightily. However, spending part of the day under the tutelage of a hunky German chef, who dispensed one-on-one critiques and praise was unforgettable as the highpoint of the trip.
We prepped our ingredients, assembled the dishes, cooked, laughed and sampled each other’s creations. We then left the kitchen and the mess behind to spend the rest of the day and evening exploring Acapulco. My diploma hangs in my kitchen, and I love showing it off when company comes.
I revisited this memory after chatting with Bill Roenigk at the National Chicken Council about this and that. He was stirred up about a presentation at the association’s Chicken Marketing Seminar this year concerning the meal assembly movement. It is a relatively new thing, this concept of putting a meal together in an industrial kitchen. Imagine a place where you can drop in, and with your own hands craft entrées such as Chicken a la Florentine Braided Bread (tender diced chicken and ham combined with spinach, Parmesan cheese, and a light béchamel sauce, all stuffed inside baked bread – soft on the inside and crusty on the outside).
I recently dropped by the Super Suppers shop in Northbrook, Ill., where this very entrée was on the menu of choices for the month of November. The December line up includes Asian Flank Steak, White Fish Fillets with Lemon-Tarragon Pasta Shells, Herb-Crusted Salmon Cakes and Tandoori Chicken with Seasoned cranberry Couscous.
I don’t know about you, but the thought of making these dishes from scratch seems daunting. I fancy myself a cook of some skill, but I don’t know if I would trust myself to pull off these dishes with serving them to my boss and his wife in mind.
No problem. I can make all or any one of them in Northbrook and freeze them until I am ready to cook and serve them to myself or dinner guests. Here is how it works. You go to the Super Suppers commercial kitchen alone, with your entire family or friends, where you work together making six to 12 meals from pre-washed, chopped, marinated, raw ingredients. Some two hours later, you pack the fixings in a freezer bag and you are ready to take your culinary marvels home. The answer to what’s for dinner is behind your freezer door at an average estimated cost of $4 per serving.
Meal assembly seems to be an emerging industry, based on projections by the Easy Meal Prep Association in Cheyenne, Wyo., which estimates some 3,000 units will exist by 2010 and business revenues will be in the billion-dollar range.
Judie Byrd, founder of Super Suppers, identifies her customers as ranging in age between 28 and 50 years old with annual incomes upwards of $75,000. This concept bears watching, to be sure. Who knows, it may well become a new high-water mark in efforts to meet the needs of time starved consumers. Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m betting the concept will fly. The big question is how big will the market be?