MEAL ASSEMBLY CENTERS MAKE A GOOD SUPERMARKET FIT

Do meal assembly centers pose much of a threat to supermarket operators, or to the contrary, do they hold opportunity for supermarkets?To get to that answer, let's start at the beginning with another question: What are meal assembly centers? As was highlighted in a detailed news feature in last week's SN, the centers are much as their name suggests: freestanding stores where consumers go to assemble

Do meal assembly centers pose much of a threat to supermarket operators, or to the contrary, do they hold opportunity for supermarkets?

To get to that answer, let's start at the beginning with another question: What are meal assembly centers? As was highlighted in a detailed news feature in last week's SN, the centers are much as their name suggests: freestanding stores where consumers go to assemble meals for later consumption at home. More specifically, they are non-cooking kitchens where meal ingredients are aggregated from food-service vendors and lightly prepared for consumers. For instance, vegetables are chopped and center-of-the-plate ingredients presented in meal-sized quantities. Patrons may opt to move among various meal stations, each of which is dedicated to a particular entree. At each station, patrons select and mix ingredients in accordance with a posted recipe. In-store advice and help is available. The idea is that in a single visit, a patron can prepare meals in quantity sufficient to last several days, or up to a month. Resulting meals are stored frozen at home. At meal time, little more effort is required. They're heated or baked, then served.

The perceived advantage is that consumers spend no time shopping for meal ingredients, doing preparation work or measuring portions. Maybe most important, no kitchen cleanup is required. The cost for each meal is about $4.

The largest players in the meal preparation business are Dream Dinners, Snohomish, Wash., and Super Suppers, Fort Worth, Texas. Both are franchisers of the concept. Super Suppers now has about 220 franchises; Dream Dinners, 185. In all, counting locations franchised by other providers, such as My Girlfriend's Kitchen, Salt Lake City, or unaffiliated locations, there are about 800 in the nation. More are being rolled out at a fast pace. The concept is about three years old.

At first glance, the concept and its apparent success seem curious. If consumers want to avoid buying individual meal components along with related preparation chores, why not go to a supermarket or a takeout location and source a totally ready fresh-prepared entree, or the like? The answer is that the meal assembly points provide several intangible benefits to their patrons, including a social one. In practice, friends often gather at a center to prepare meals together. Moreover, the centers allow patrons to have some control over meal content and perhaps their healthfulness. Finally, and most important, the practice allows homemakers to reap credit by placing in front of family members meals they can purport with some legitimacy that they prepared themselves.

When it comes to the competitive challenge posed by meal assembly centers, restaurants probably bear more risk than do supermarkets. After all, even if dinner is ready, it remains to procure side dishes, beverages and desserts. Additionally, anything that promotes food-at-home has to have some upside for supermarkets. So do we hear opportunity knocking?

Take a look at the front page news feature in this week's SN about upscale independents. Many of the featured stores, and countless others, are well positioned, for obvious reasons, to offer meal assembly services in their stores, either as a co-branded endeavor with a franchiser or under stores' own flags.