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Meal-assembly kitchen in MP keeps up with the times

 

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When meal-assembly kitchens came on the scene in 2002, they were seen as the solution to that never ending dilemma: what to fix for dinner.

Customers would pre-order several meals, then attend a two-hour session where they assembled dinners while chatting with friends, maybe sipping a glass of wine. They left with a cooler full of meals ready to cook at home.

Great idea, except in the past two years, growth in the meal prep industry has slowed sharply, according to a recent New York Times article. It seems many people are not motivated to plan so many meals ahead of time. A lot of working women or frazzled stay-at-home moms have a grab-and-go mentality, resorting to fast food or takeout.

Meal-assembly sessions are still popular at Deeelish, at 700 El Camino Real in Menlo Park, says co-owner Jeff Stevens. However, since the facility opened in 2006 the focus has changed, and today 70 percent of the business is in pre-assembled meals.

Customers come in and assemble dinners the first few times they use the service, then decide they would rather pay extra and have the meals already waiting for them.

Laura King of Palo Alto was such a customer at Deeelish recently. She was picking up eight pre-packaged dinners while carrying daughter Katlyn, 2. "This (Deeelish) has changed our lifestyle. I love it," she says.

Customers can drive up and have the coolers of assembled meals delivered to their cars or, for a $25 additional fee, the store will ship frozen uncooked meals by overnight delivery via FedEx to homes in several Western states.

"We shipped 300 to 500 Deeelish meals to Lake Tahoe last week (ski week)," says Mr. Stevens. "We even ship meals to customers in Atherton. We provide service like a 1950s gas station."

The FedEx program is a small part of the company's more than $1 million in annual revenue, says Mr. Stevens, but he expects corporate deliveries, where office workers pre-order meals to take home, will account for half of sales by the end of the year. The company's truck delivers fresh meals to commercial refrigerators it has installed in office buildings. Google is one of the companies using the service, according to a press release.

While do-it-yourself sessions have waned in popularity, they are still the core of the business, says Mr. Stevens.

They can also be a lot of fun. Last week a group of women whose children attend Juana Briones School in Palo Alto gathered at Deeelish to assemble dinners, enjoy party time (guests brought wine and hors d'oeuvres), and contribute to a worthy cause. Deeelish donated $15 out of each woman's order to the school. Last year the company donated $30,000 to various organizations, Mr. Stevens says.

Assembling your dinners in the upscale setting is like playing house. The stainless steel stations look enticing with their array of carefully prepared meats, fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables. Attractive containers of spices line the tops of the stations. The staff stands ready to seal the meals in vacuum packs after they are assembled.

Good friends Cindy Ziebelman and Suzanne McKenna were splitting an order of eight meals. (Eight meals is the minimum for a do-it-yourself session. Each meal generously serves four to six. The cost is about $275.)

"We've been here five or six times. Our lives are so hectic these days, we don't have time to cook," says Ms. McKenna. "We enjoy spending the time together," adds Ms. Ziebelman. "And the owners are so helpful. They also clean up after you."

Mariann Taylor, mother of eight children ages 2 to 18, says she loves the service and is able to stretch a meal for six to feed the family by adding extra dishes.

Deeelish is independently owned by Jeff and Jami Stevens of Half Moon Bay. Mr. Stevens, who has an MBA from Stanford University, was the CEO of three companies before embarking on the meal venture. His last business was a women's fitness company. Deeelish targets the same group: career-oriented, well-educated women between the ages of 35 and 55.

Jami Stevens is responsible for recipe development, and has collaborated with Chef Lev Dagan, an instructor at the California Culinary Academy, to create more than 200 recipes. She is a fabulous cook, says her husband. She is also the mother of three small children and business manager of her family's Ford agency in Half Moon Bay. "I work close to 90 hours a week, but I don't begin to work as hard as she does," says her husband.

Mr. Stevens is confident his business will succeed because of the quality of the food. "The Bay Area is pretty snobby about food. We don't buy from chains. We get our meat from a butcher in San Francisco and our fruits and vegetables from the produce market in San Francisco. Our herbs come from farms in Half Moon Bay. Everything is fresh but the shrimp."

The company is looking for a second kitchen location to prepare their ready-made meals and has plans for expansion. "Our goal is to serve the entire Bay Area," he says.

Information

-- The Deeelish menu for March featured: coffee-roasted hanger steak, Filipino adobo-style chicken, pesto sausage gnocchi, New Orleans shrimp and chicken gumbo, chicken sausage noodle pie, lemon seafood risotto, pasta with beef and pancetta bolognese, Moroccan chicken tagine, stuffed pork loin, beef and barley stew, salmon with ponzu sauce, Jamaican jerk chicken, St. Patrick's corned beef and cabbage, and roasted leg of lamb.

-- Customers choose eight meals for six for $275, pre-assembly is $25 extra.

-- The store also sells pies from Duarte's restaurant in San Gregorio and La Brea bread.

-- Meals may be ordered on line at www.deeelish.com. For more information, call 325-6325.

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