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Publix joins meal prep market preps for create-a-meal

The chain plans to open a test site in the bay area, where several smaller shops have already emerged.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published May 18, 2007


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Meal prep is a time-saving way for busy people to whip up gourmet meals, such as this Southwestern chicken in black bean sauce from Let's Eat, and save money. Book a time, show up and add the ingredients that are laid out before you at a food prep station. Pack it in a foil baking pan and freeze until you want to eat it.

Publix Super Markets Inc. is getting into the meal-prep and assembly business, a move that could accelerate a shakeup of a popular new way to make fancy dinners fast.

The Lakeland chain, the nation's sixth largest grocer, becomes the first big supermarket chain to bring its deep pockets to an industry few experts consider more than a fad.

Publix, which has a reputation for staying at the cutting edge of food trends, will create its own version of the 1,000 fix-and-freeze meal assembly stores that have sprung up with names such as Dinner My Way, Get Cooking and Make 'n Take. One grocer, a Piggly Wiggly in Columbia, S.C., this month opened a franchised Dream Dinners location inside a store and has plans for more.

"We think we can offer what's becoming a popular and convenient meal solution that's competitively priced," said Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous. "Our professional chefs create recipes for the whole family including gourmet entrees we make less intimidating."

Meal prep appeals to the time stressed. No chopping, shopping or meal planning. Just pick the entrees from a rotating list of a dozen, reserve a time and make a trip to assemble it all from fresh-cut ingredients. Meals are sealed for freezing. Typically a dozen entrees cost $200. Each serves four to six people, about $4 a serving.

Like most meal-prep stores, Publix will do assembly, too, for a fee.

The Tampa Bay area, where the number of meal-prep stores tripled to 26 in 18 months, is a test site for the Publix Apron's Make-Ahead Meals outlet. After the first location opens in an expanded Apron's Cooking School in Jacksonville this fall, a stand-alone version will open in early 2008 inside a Publix at FishHawk Ranch east of Tampa.

That's a mile from a Let's Eat meal-prep store.

"Oh, no," Let's Eat manager Lorena Woods said with a sigh upon hearing of a new -- and large -- rival. "But I'm confident our food is much better."

Melissa Slack is president of Tampa-based Let's Eat, which has 14 franchised stores including seven in the Tampa Bay area.

"Publix is reaffirming the need for meal prep, but this isn't as easy it looks," she said. "We create the atmosphere that you're at a friend's home. That's hard in a big store."

"Competition can be a good thing, but we've already seen how there can be too much," said Sandee McKenzie co-owner of Super Supper in Clearwater.

A few local stores closed in the past year.

Meal prep exploded out of the Pacific Northwest into a industry with revenues topping $270-million in 2006. The spark was two working mothers in Snohomish, Wash., who went into business sharing recipes for homemade frozen gourmet entrees. Their Dream Dinners now has 234 franchised stores. Super Suppers from Forth Worth, Texas, has 200.

Still, most stores are single units run by would-be entrepreneurs. They have a habit of clustering in the same upper-end neighborhoods, insuring the industry eats its young. A store count from the Easy Meal Prep Association found 301 stores opened in 2007 while 138 closed.

The chains are big enough to tie in with national brands. Super Suppers has a coupon deal with the Pixar film Ratatouille this summer and in January features recipes endorsed by home entertaining diva Martha Stewart.

But experts have yet to see enough customer loyalty.

"For Publix it's another way to get people in the store," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., Chicago restaurant research firm. "But we don't know if meal prep has a permanent following."

"It's good Publix tries new ideas, but grocers tried to get in the prepared meal business for years and have yet to put any restaurants out of business," said David J. Livingston, a supermarket consultant in Pewaukee, Wis., "Sooner or later people realize a $16 entree isn't that much different than driving the kids to a restaurant."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

[Last modified May 18, 2007, 00:22:28]


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