Americans, pinched for time and increasingly uncomfortable in their kitchens, have been on a 50-year slide away from home cooking. Now, at almost 700 meal assembly centers around the country, families like the Robbinses prepare two weeks’ worth of dinners they can call their own with little more effort than it takes to buy a rotisserie chicken and a bag of salad.
The centers are opening at a rate of about 40 a month, mostly in strip malls and office parks in the nation’s suburbs and smaller cities, and are projected to earn $270 million this year, according to the Easy Meal Prep Association, the industry’s trade group.
“It’s been keeping us from ordering pizza all the time,” Ms. Robbins said. “And you still feel like you’re cooking.”
The prototype, a kind of elevated cooking session among friends in a commercial kitchen, popped up in the Northwest in 1999. The concept did not take off until 2002, when two Seattle-area women streamlined the process so customers could make 12 dinners for six in two hours for under $200. That company became Dream Dinners, which opened a year later and now has 112 franchise stores, with 64 under construction.
Super Suppers, which opened a year later in Fort Worth, is the largest chain, with 121 franchise stores and 77 more under construction. For people with few cooking skills, the centers keep things simple with a rotating menu of mostly stews and casseroles designed to be assembled in freezer bags or aluminum trays, then taken home to be baked or simmered in a single pot.