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Retailers Get Customers Cooking With New Programs

Retailers Get Customers Cooking With New Programs

For many families a generation ago, grocery shopping involved weekly rituals: carefully clipping coupons from the Sunday paper, taking inventory of the cupboard, sketching out a rough menu for the week and finally, making a long list of ingredients to pick up at the store.

Times have certainly changed. The U.S. middle class is now dominated by two-income households, in which both earners are often too pressed for time to cook dinner every night. Many Baby Boomers and other empty-nesters no longer see the point of long lists and staple stockpiling since they've got money to spare for convenience and are no longer preparing elaborate family meals, anyway. Singles and single parents? Forget about it.

But it's exciting to see how retailers are adapting to these demographic changes, and the resulting seismic shifts in consumer shopping habits.

In recent weeks, three separate Southeastern retailers have announced the launch of in-store meal assembly or “fix-and-freeze” programs. At Earth Fare, there's “Gourmet 2 Go”; Publix just began offering “Apron's Make-Ahead Meals” through its locations that feature an Apron's cooking school; and Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. just opened a “Dream Dinners” franchise in a Columbia, S.C., location.

In Fresh Market this week, Amy Sung takes a look at how these programs aim to help today's cooking-challenged shoppers quickly whip up meals for their families for up to a week or two at a time. By presenting customers with pre-chopped ingredients, fully equipped prep stations, instructions and hands-on help, even shoppers with hectic schedules can now find the time to prepare a weekly menu for themselves and their families.

Meal assembly programs have been sweeping the country ever since Dream Dinners, the brainchild of two working mothers, opened its first location in suburban Seattle five years ago and began offering franchise opportunities shortly afterward.

And, as this page has argued before, the concepts seem like a perfect fit for supermarkets. Earth Fare's food-service manager Paul Cassara even envisions a future where supermarkets could do the rest of the weekly grocery shopping for their meal assembly customers, and Piggly Wiggly Carolina's Rita Postell has told SN that many shoppers treat the sessions as a night out, where they meet up with friends, share refreshments and listen to music while making all these meals.

It's not hard to understand the basic appeal of these concepts. They offer customers significantly more control over ingredients and portion sizes than restaurant takeout or fast food drive-throughs. They restore a sense of participation in the home cooking process, which was slowly being lost. And they make customers feel like they are eating and serving healthier food for their families — something everyone wants, but no one seems to think they have time for anymore.

And when you package all of that into an event with music, friends and a fun atmosphere, it becomes a weekly ritual for a new generation — something that shoppers can look forward to including in their overstuffed schedules, rather than viewing the process of shopping and cooking as such a chore.