As a teacher at Lee’s Corner Elementary School in Fairfax, Lauri Hilburger knows that the beginning of the school year means the end of relaxing summer evenings. And as the mother of two children and wife of another working professional, husband Steve Hilburger who works in Reston at the USGS, she also values the importance of sharing a family meal. Like many professionals in the area, Hilburger has turned to a service commonly referred to as “make-and-take” or “meal-prep” stores, a trend which came to this area two years ago with the introduction of Let’s Dish in Ashburn, and since, has sprouted similar services across the county. Hilburger’s favorite is Dinner Done in Centreville.
“We have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old and I usually try to pick them up at four or four-thirty [from daycare],” said the Chantilly resident. “The first thing I would do is start dinner. If I’m using Dinner Done, I know it’s only going to take 40 minutes.”
According to Hilburger, time is precious in the evening. From four to six o’clock she’s thinking about cooking dinner. By six o’clock the family is eating. Around seven it’s time for the kids to take a bath and brush their teeth, and usually, by eight o’clock the children are in bed.
“There’s not a lot of time from when I pick [the kids] up to when they go to bed,” said Hilburger.
After hearing about the make-and-take restaurants from a friend, Hilburger decided to try it for herself.
“I went for the first time maybe 18 months ago and I go every couple of months,” said Hilburger. “Typically I do 12 entrées, but I’ll end up leaving with 16 to 18 meals.”
Kara Flegal, a teacher at Dogwood Elementary School in Reston, has also used Dinner Done’s services after hearing about it from a co-worker. A teacher at one of Fairfax County’s year-round schools, and in addition, a swim coach for the Curl Burke team in Tysons Corner, Flegal believes the store saves both time and money.
“The biggest thing for me is that they provided all the meat that goes along the meal,” she said. “That alone saved me a bunch of time and money.”
The process for creating meals is simple. While each business has its own nuances, most require pre-registration for a specific session the customer, or party, would like to attend. Pre-registration specifies the date, time and allows the customer to pre-select a number of entrées from the business’s menu, most of which, typically change each month. At the store, customers move from station to station, using the pre-measured ingredients and step-by-step instructions to prepare each entrée. After transporting the number of entrées home by way of a cooler, the only step left before serving is time in the oven. An average time to accomplish 12 entrées, each serving four portions, is about an hour-and-a-half. Prices range according to store, but on average, preparing eight entrées costs between $150 and $170, while the 12 entrée menu ranges in price from $210 to $250.
OWNERS OF THE LOCAL businesses say that the way Hilburger and Flegal were introduced to the make-and-take concept is par for the course: To this point, the success of the trend in this area can largely be attributed to word of mouth advertising. Jolie Crowder, owner of the recently opened Dinner Zen in Reston’s South Lakes Shopping Center, believes this is because relaying the concept of the store is hard to accomplish in traditional advertising. Thus, she has no problem with similar businesses offering the same service in the area.
“We need as many people out there promoting the concept,” said Crowder, who also serves on the board of the International Association of Meal Prep Businesses. “The more stores we have the better.”
Elizabeth Marcotte, owner of the regional franchises for the Minnesota-based company Let’s Dish, first introduced the concept to Northern Virginia with the opening of her Ashburn location in August 2005. Within the first 13 months of opening the store, she built eight more locations that included areas such as Leesburg, Alexandria, Fairfax and as far north as Baltimore.
“I have had a heck of a task really educating people on the concept,” said Marcotte. “I’m incredibly proud of the fact that we’ve provided Fairfax County with a new way to eat dinner. We have people who’ve come 20 to 24 times since we’ve opened.”
But Marcotte’s Let’s Dish isn’t the only food assembly business finding success in this regional market. At Corner Cuisine, located in the new shops of the Lorton Town Center, Dave Christian walks the floor as his customers are busy preparing a variety of meals, from broiled tilapia with pineapple sauce to Caribbean jerk chicken. With The Beatles playing through the sound system, Christian jokes with the customers as he moves from station to station. Some of the patrons are new faces, but a large number have been here before. Much like Dinner Zen, Christian’s Corner Cuisine is a privately owned business competing with the larger franchises.
“I really try to get out there and joke and have fun,” said Christian. “People are under a lot of stress these days and I want an environment where people can enjoy themselves.”
Raised in the area, Christian is excited to help solve the dinner problem for his local community.
“This is my community,” said the Robinson High School graduate, class of 1985. “I grew up here and went to high school here.”
And the customers reflect that sentiment. Working their way through the various food prep stations, there was Donna Edwards of Kingstowne, who is one of many teachers at Saratoga Elementary School that uses the service; Marian Savage, a nurse at Inova; Jackie Stoffelen, employee of the Fairfax County Park Authority; and Bonita Trotman, who’s been in the army for 17 years.
“I work over at the Pentagon, so when I get off the metro I want to make food fast,” she said. “This is a convenience.”
WHILE THE SELECTION of “make-and-take” businesses continues to grow in the area, it can be increasingly difficult to pick the right one out of the crowd: Each has its own character. Christian believes it comes down a series of three decisions: Proximity to the home, menu selection and overall taste.
And based on what owners and customers are both saying, a good first impression often leads to repeat business. Towards the end of last Saturday’s session at Corner Cuisine, Donna Edwards and her friends were already scheduling their next visit, coordinating around their ever-growing busy schedules.
“I just dove in with both feet,” said Edwards about her use of the service. “I figure, if I do it this week, I’ll be ready for my next week. It’s better than going to a restaurant or just ordering Chinese.”
Also registering for another session were Burke residents John and Pat Thompson.
“My daughter started coming and she said it was a great place for career women,” said Pat Thompson. “I brought my co-workers and they just loved it. It’s fabulous for working women and moms.”