Two Local Meal Assembly Stores Help with Consumer Food Cost Woes

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Survey of more than 1,800 customers in the US and Canada shows meal prep stores provide good value, dinnertime "diversity" and healthy options.

The International Association of Meal Prep Businesses (IAMPB) today released promising results from a national customer survey. Two local stores, Corner Cuisine in Lorton and Dinner Zen in Reston, both independently owned operations, were tapped to participate in the national effort. The survey of more than 1,800 meal assembly store customers from 23 states and Canada found the majority of respondents enjoy greater diversity in the meals they eat at home, while spending less time and money grocery shopping, less time preparing meals at home, and eating out less. For a service often perceived as a luxury, it is notable that most customers are spending the same or less on their overall food budgets.

Forty-eight percent of respondents report a decrease in their monthly grocery bill, while another 46 percent report no change in their bill but say they now provide healthier, home-cooked meals.

"As gas prices soared, unemployment rates went up and the economy softened, people who might not have thought twice about their grocery bills or what percentage of their food budget was being spent eating out started to notice the impact that these stores have on their personal budgets," said Leslie Hanna, President of the IAMPB. "This is the first survey of its kind. We looked across multiple markets -- from San Diego to Massachusetts and points in between, and gathered customer data from 18 different stores. Our store owners have always known that meal assembly is smart for a myriad of reasons. What we heard is that our customers get that too."

The meal assembly industry has experienced growing pains as it has evolved from last year's "hot trend" to taking its place as an essential approach to dinner time for tens of thousands of customers across the country. While the core concept of customer do-it-yourself assembly still remains, stores have added on additional convenience services such as retail sale of assembled meals, delivery and more in hopes of expanding their customer base. Though, 76 percent of survey respondents report that they choose to come into the store and assemble meals themselves. And customer feedback would seem to indicate that for a small and growing legion of customers meal prep is more than just a passing fad.

Interestingly, customers don't look to meal assembly for the economic benefit alone, rather they're drawn by the overall value that meal assembly has to offer. Survey respondents, identified the following primary benefits of meal assembly:

  • 76 percent -- minimized time and effort spent planning, shopping and preparing meals;
  • 70 percent -- more diversity in home cooked meals; and
  • 59 percent -- eating healthier or less processed foods

Other key benefits cited included: eating out or take out less frequently, less time spent grocery shopping, making cooking enjoyable, less stress and spending more time with family.

Fifty-eight percent of customers who use these stores report that they spend less time grocery shopping. While 79 percent report spending less time cooking their meals at home.

"I was a little surprised when I saw how much time people save when cooking our meals. Saying our meals saves time is one thing, but hearing from so many customers was eye-opening. The average time savings for both of our stores was just about 20 minutes, which was on par with the national survey data," says Dave Christian, owner and manager of Corner Cuisine.

"As a busy mom with a business to run and a family to feed, having 20 minutes back in my day and still being able to feed my family nutritious meals without all the preservatives that usually come with convenience foods is a life saver. And that doesn't account for the time I don't have to spend planning meals, grocery shopping or fighting the crowds at the warehouse stores," says Jolie Crowder, owner of Dinner Zen.

An accompanying document published by the IAMPB provides consumer tips for saving on food bills, as well as a cost comparison of meals purchased from meal prep stores versus grocery stores and restaurants. Based upon selected entrees and ingredients, consumers could potentially achieve savings of 10-50 percent over grocery store pricing and pay about a quarter of the price for similar "restaurant quality" meals.

According to Hanna, "If you look at it from a purely economic perspective meal assembly stores make good financial sense. While you certainly can't attribute the decline in the number of consumers eating out to meal assembly stores, for those who use our services it is fair to say that it provides them a very cost efficient option. Apply your 'hourly rate' to the time savings achieved -- minimized time spent grocery shopping, prep work, and cooking -- and then factor in the substantial reduction in wasted food and it all adds up to a good deal."

Meal assembly stores are based upon the premise that cooking at home doesn't mean you have to sacrifice the quality, variety and time savings you get elsewhere. "Our customers trust us to help them put a home cooked, healthy dinner on the table. While price is a factor, we got into this business because we believe in the value of bringing families back to the dinner table," says Crowder.

Founded separately by two local couples, Corner Cuisine and Dinner Zen simplify the dinner preparation process by eliminating the planning, shopping and clean-up involved in making home cooked meals. Corner Cuisine is located in Lorton, Virginia. To learn more, visit: Corner Cuisine. Dinner Zen is located in Reston, Virginia. To learn more, visit: Dinner Zen

The IAMPB is an industry trade association that represents meal prep businesses around the globe. To learn more, visit: IAMPB

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