“I am meal planning inept,” joked Lisa Maloof as she put together loaded barbecue pulled pork bites at a Kennewick meal-prep store.
“It’s not my thing and it never has been,” she said.
Combine this with a husband she describes as “extremely picky,” Maloof said she relies on Dream Dinners to fill her freezer with meals she can quickly get on the table a couple times a week.
The Kennewick store is one of 87 nationwide.
Franchise owners Melissa and Kyle Edberg said they believe sharing a quality, home-cooked meal together is a key component to a family’s happiness.
“It’s not about how many dinners we sell; it’s how many lives we change,” Melissa Edberg said. The couple have owned their Dream Dinners franchise on West Grandridge Boulevard since spring 2015.
Following the franchise purchase, they were named the No. 1 store in the nation for increasing sales. Melissa Edberg credited the success to focusing on community and building relationships, not simply trying to increase a customer base.
Dream Dinners became the first national food-prep chain when it opened in Snohomish 15 years ago. The idea was conceived by a former caterer who had been creating freezer meals and wanted to expand the service. The Kennewick store opened in 2006 and averaged about 50 customers during its original ownership.
The store is tucked away in a strip mall that includes stores facing Canal Drive, including Best Buy and Petsmart.
Melissa Edberg said the previous owners kept intermittent hours, and customers weren’t sure when the store was open.
The franchise reverted to a corporate-owned location when the original owners retired, and Melissa Edberg began working as the operations manager. She quickly realized she wanted to buy the store, and the sale was completed a little more than two years ago.
The sale coincided with an image refresh for the company, which included a remodel of the Kennewick location, putting the mission of the franchise front and center with a mural featuring a collage of words like “family,” “relationships” and “moments.”
The Dream Dinners franchise requires an initial investment ranging from $260,000 to $448,000, which includes the franchise fee, training, permit requirements, leaseholder improvements, signs, inventory, account system, insurance and equipment, according to the Dream Dinners website. It also requires $150,000 in liquid assets and a minimum net worth of $450,000.
Dream Dinners allows customers to prepare freezer meals using ingredients prepped by staff ahead of time. A list of potential meals is made available each month and customers choose the number of meals they wish to make, and the quantity of servings — small to feed three, or large to feed six.
When customers arrive at the store, they select a colored apron which coordinates with their status in a rewards program. After a trip to the hand-washing station, it is time to start assembling meals.
Multiple stations are available and more than one person at a time can work at a single station, each making a different meal. This allows 10 to 12 people to assemble meals at the same time.
The appropriate measuring spoons and cups are already in place, along with simple assembly instructions using color coding to ease identification of the correct amount for each ingredient. Items are placed into varying sizes of sealed freezer bags or a disposable metal tray, each designed to go immediately into a freezer.
The final addition is a recipe card which provides quick instructions to get most meals on the table in 20 to 30 minutes.
Convenience is one of the main factors that has brought Anna Riel back to Dream Dinners for more than a year. Cooking for a family of five, Riel said she averages a pre-prepped freezer meal once a week.
She said she appreciates the ease of having all ingredients chopped and sorted ahead of time, without needing to clean knives, cutting boards and mixing bowls. The meals also are intended to get on the table quickly and simply, without the need for multiple pots, pans or baking dishes. Assembling a layered ravioli bake, Riel expected it to be easy to serve. “You throw them in the oven and you don’t have to worry about it,” she said.
Riel also said the meal prep work provides more ideas for her recipe repertoire to break her out of a rut.
Those cooking for a family are not the main customer base for the Kennewick store, a departure from the norm for a typical Dream Dinners location.
Rather than providing a service for busy families with working parents, two-thirds of the customers the Edbergs see fall into the “empty nester,” or young professional demographic.
The staff finds those who no longer have kids at home often prefer a simpler way to present a homemade dish without preparing an elaborate meal, living the company’s motto of “Homemade, made easy.”
This includes Twana and Don Butkus who have been frequenting Dream Dinners for more than a year. They come in once a month and spend a little more than an hour assembling 12 to 16 meals.
Twana Butkus said she serves a Dream Dinners meal about three times a week. She learned about the service by participating in a “Dream Taste” event with friends.
These are held every second Wednesday evening of the month, offering an introductory experience to the service.
First-time visitors can assemble three meals, which will serve three people for $35.
Twana Butkus was sold on her first visit and encourages others to give it a test drive.
Her husband raved the taste is what keeps him coming back.
“I’ve never been disappointed in all the meals we try,” he said as he filled and rolled chicken enchiladas.
An $84.95 introductory offer is also offered to first-time guests to create 18 servings, using a combination of three- or six-serving meals.
Individual ingredients are chosen to be “as wholesome as we can,” said Melissa Edberg.
Proteins are flash-frozen before being used in a meal, and all meats are antibiotic- and hormone-free. Lower-sodium options are used when available, and gluten-free recipes can make the menu list.
All nutritional content is available online before a customer chooses a meal, and additional symbols identify choices as “heart healthy,” “grill-friendly” and “30 minutes or less.” For those tracking calories in the popular My Fitness Pal app, the nutritional content of each Dream Dinners menu item is already uploaded to the program.
The popularity of online meal planning services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh haven’t taken business away from Dream Dinners but rather provided it “a shot in the arm,” Melissa Edberg said.
She said she believes these new services get people interested in meal-prepping and said she’s found local customers appreciate visiting a brick-and-mortar store where they can customize a meal themselves.
Comparing her business to the online options, Melissa Edberg said cooking with Dream Dinners is less likely to result in food waste since meals are kept in the freezer until ready to use. Additionally, she said the meals available in her store are focused less on sophistication and more on family, explaining, “Each recipe has to pass the ‘kid test’ before they go out.”
The demanding schedule of today’s families has more people eating on the go or out, often putting less priority on spending time around the family dinner table.
It’s not necessarily a habit people are proud of.
“Moms feel bad about the fact they can’t give their family homemade meals,” Melissa Edberg said.
Many customers tell her they visit the store because they don’t know how to cook, or just don’t have the time, she said.
The average cost per serving of a Dream Dinners entrée runs between $5.50 and $8, with an average of $55 a week to feed three meals to three people, or serve dinner for two and lunch for one the following day.
The cost may be higher than what families spend on their grocery bill, but Melissa Edberg said it doesn’t factor in the time spent menu planning, shopping, prepping and cleaning up. She said the goal is keeping homemade freezer meal costs less than ordering take-out or going to a restaurant. She estimated an average time savings of 20 hours a week for those who serve a Dream Dinners meal three times a week.
For regular customers who truly don’t even have an hour to spend assembling meals, staff will do it ahead of time for a $25 fee.
Dream Dinners employs 10 people, including Melissa Edberg, and at any time up to half are present to support a meal-prep session. This includes all prep and clean-up as well as creating a couple of dishes for guests to try to offer a sample of what’s to come the next month. Creating a menu can be done online or in store by completing an order form and scheduling an appointment session for meal assembly. After taking the meals home, a customer can sign up for text alerts for reminders on defrosting certain items, if needed.
Dream Dinners, including the Kennewick franchise, offer a number of ways to give back to the community, providing baskets for charity auctions, in-store fundraising events and designating a monthly meal that, when purchased, will include a charity donation.
The Edbergs are excited to host a meal-packing event for the first time in the spring that will provide nutrition packs to local families and serve hunger needs around the world. The company-wide goal is to pack up to 80,000 meals in one day next May, which will require up to 800 volunteers.
More information on the event and ways to help will be provided closer to the event.
To schedule a visit to Dream Dinners, go online at dreamdinners.com or call 509-735-8315.
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