Great tastes, coming right up

Published May 14, 2007

TRINITY - Nearly a year ago, mysterious things began emerging from Tracie Hand's oven.

Maple mustard-glazed steak with blue cheese and pecans. White cheese vegetable lasagna. Pork with pesto and roasted red pepper.

Tracie Hand? The social studies teacher, mother and wife, but most definitely not a chef? She who, for years, relied on Publix deli and frozen dinners?

Hand, it turned out, had found a solution to her time-crunched, non-Emeril ways: Main Dish, a business where customers assemble meals to take home and either cook that night or freeze for later.

"It does take the guesswork out of 'What are we going to do for dinner?' " said Hand, who lives in the Seven Springs area. "I have friends who think I'm an amazing cook."

Nationwide, the growth of these "make-and-take" businesses is on the move, to 1, 120 last year from 175 in 2004, according to Easy Meal Prep, a Colorado-based industry group.

Just in the past year, Trinity has become Pasco County's meal-prep hot spot, with the only three places in the county within a few miles of each other. In addition to the 1-year-old Main Dish, there is WeekDay Gourmet, which opened in March, and Let's Eat!, opening later this month.

These businesses tout their cost savings, healthy ingredients and their role in, as Let's Eat! co-owner Donna Navatta puts it, "bringing families back to the dinner table."

Trinity, a fast-growing collection of planned communities, has just the kind of market these businesses like: Two-income families as well as retirees. Plus its proximity to the Suncoast Parkway makes it convenient for commuters from other areas of west Pasco to stop by on their way home.

"You've got a lot of professional working families, " said Maria Lord, managing partner for WeekDay Gourmet. "Trinity really is growing."

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Here's how the general meal-prep concept works: Every month, the businesses have a dozen or more menu items. Don't think Hamburger Helper, of course; think Caribbean-jerked sirloin and veal scaloppine with Madeira sauce. Each of those entrees is typically designed to serve four to six people.

You pick the entrees and how many you want - packages include four entrees for roughly $85 or a dozen for about $200 - and schedule a session. Then you come in and rotate among stations set up with pre-measured ingredients and the directions for putting together each particular entree.

In less than two hours, customers can whip up nearly a month's worth of dinners. No chopping, dicing, marinating or washing dishes required.

At an extra cost, the businesses will put the meals together and have them ready for customers to pick up.

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Though the meals can require a hefty investment, all three businesses and their regular customers emphasize the per-serving cost, which is typically between $3 and $5 - cheaper than take-out.

Fans of the concept say they also save on groceries. No need to buy ginger or roasted red peppers you'll use only for one meal.

"There are so many things I'd never buy, " at the grocery store, said Hand.

The other big savings is time, said Kelly Santos, a River Ridge resident who has been to WeekDay Gourmet a half dozen times in the past two months.

As mother of two boys and a co-owner of a mortgage brokerage in Tampa, Santos says time can seem like a luxury. Knowing that she's got a few healthy meals a week already in the freezer is a big deal.

"For me, " she said, "time is the most valuable thing."

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Even if Trinity does turn out to be a profitable place for meal-prep businesses, is the market strong enough to sustain all three?

Weekday and Let's Eat!, both franchises, are just across Duck Slough Boulevard from each other, and the independent Main Dish is 5 miles away.

All of the business owners say: Of course.

"Home Depot and Lowe's are right across the street from each other, " said Let's Eat! co-owner Diane Burr.

Main Dish owner Lisa Florio said the meal-prep concept is new enough in Pasco that the more publicity generated for all the businesses, the better off they'll be.

"I think it can only promote the concept, " said Florio. "Because we all offer different menus, it's not a problem."

Jodie Tillman covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or 727 869-6247.

Fast Facts:

Places to be

WeekDay Gourmet

Location: 10860 State Road 54, next to Outback Steakhouse.

Phone: (727) 372-5500

Web site: www.weekday gourmet.com

Let's Eat!

Location: 10720 State Road 54, Trinity Village Center.

Phone: (727) 376-6707

Web site: www.letseat dinner.com

Main Dish

Location: 7813 Mitchell Blvd., Trinity Commons Plaza.

Phone: (727) 375-2333

Web site: www.trinity maindish.com