Much Ado About Nothing

This comment from the Franchise Pundit made me stop and think for a moment.

At the end of the day, are all 3 the meal assembly brands interchangeable in the eyes of the customer? Our readers are astute and will see through PR puff, so if there isn’t a compelling differentiators that is fine, just say so.,194.0.html

How are meal assembly franchises different? With so many popping up on an almost daily basis you would expect an almost infinite variety, catering to every need and niche out there. With so many unique owners, so many different points of view, and influences from coast, our choices in what we serve for dinner should be an endless variety where we could go to a different store every month and have meals we’ve never experienced before. It should be like a culinary explosion going across the nation.

But is that what we really have?

Most stores use the same alliteration and have catchy names that have something to do with dinner, or supper or meals. Or they use clever word play involving thyme, dishes or plates.

But names aside, how do they differ and what makes them special?

The basic premise is to save time and money by purchasing and making meals on the bulk principal. Most stores offer the big money saving plan of preparing 12 meals for a reasonable cost. You can also spend more and get less by buying 6 meals, perhaps even 3 and in some cases, just the single meal for the night.

Each offers a menu of 12-14 recipes which you put together. And the basic idea is to move from station to station using bags and pans as needed to put the meal together. Sometimes you move to the food, sometimes the food comes to you, but the idea is the same.

From all the menus I’ve seen they offer choices that compliment and emulate each other. You can plan on chicken, beef, pork, fish and pasta. In some cases deserts are offered, specialty sandwiches, breakfast/brunch items and some side items like rice, pasta, bread/rolls and other items that compliment the meals. With each store offering different recipes you get a variety to be sure, but at the heart, the core ingredients and spices remain the same. Different combinations, but not quite the exotic niche filled market that so many stores could afford.

Most stores adorn their commercial insides with homey décor and the ever popular, red and yellow walls. Call it burgundy and goldenrod, or whatever patented name you like, it’s still yellow and red to me. Sure, there is variation, but not the individuality you would expect.

To compliment their social atmosphere, almost all stores provide some sort of party you can attend. Reserve a session and just you and your friends can have the place all to yourselves. Make meals, have some wine, talk about the days events. So many things accomplished in such a small amount of time.

Another main goal was to save time. Prepare 12 meals and you’re done for the month. When you “get caught unaware” you still have a home cooked meal ready to go. As you may have guessed, fast wasn’t fast enough and people no longer have time to even make their 12 or 6 meals anymore. This lead most stores to offer the option of assembling meals for you sometimes for a small fee, sometime just out of good neighborly love. (Not to mention they don’t want you to cancel the order and go somewhere else).

A large claim of difference is the quality of food. Our food is fresher! We have better ingredients! An excellent way to separate yourself, but are these true claims? Most meal assembly stores, restaurants and grocery stores are serviced by Sysco. Are they saying the Sysco quality is poor? That their food selection and quality isn’t on par with what they can purchase themselves? If you’re not going through Sysco, then does Food Services of America (FSA) or US Foods not have the quality ingredients you need? It would seem you’re getting food from one of them. And if you’re not getting it directly, whoever you buy from more than likely is. Sams, Costco, BJs, etc are all working with the same vendors the rest of us are.

Let’s continue with the “fresher” moniker for a moment. Does buying it from the grocery store next door or down the street mean its fresher? Sysco and FSA deliver there too. “We use a growers market” I hear being shouted from the back row. A wonderful way to support local growers, and indeed you can get fresh vegetables to enhance the meals. But can you rely on this to serve up 50 meals a day for a week? Do they actually have enough to support a busy franchise? If you only have a few sessions a week and can get enough from this supplier that’s great, but what about the meat, fish, chicken and pork? That’s not from the growers market.

So maybe a store can claim freshness of vegetables (in some rare cases), but the meat is going to be frozen (or at least it should be!).

Customer service is indeed the backbone of any store or business. But this has nothing to do with the franchise and everything to do with who you’re lucky enough to hire. Are you lucky enough to hire culinary students who want to make food their life’s pursuit? Are you able to get wait staff who know how to work quickly and efficiently and keep everything tidy? Customer service will make or break a company, but it has nothing to do with the franchise.

Convenience might have a played a key role in choosing one location over another. If one store was busy, head over to another one. But with multiple stores of each franchise locating in the same area I don’t see this as a factor anymore if it ever was. The idea of a full session should be non-existent. If there were sold out sessions, that’s surely the reasons you have so many additional franchises in an area. And from the session calendars I’ve seen, there is plenty of room at the inn.

Does it all come down to the recipes? Is this the dividing line? Of course every store says their meals are better. They have a Chef at the helm creating menus just for you. Their recipes are owner tested, customer approved. The recipes they use have been tested, refined, tested again, perfected and made as flavorful and simple as possible. Many have exotic and titillating names that speak of exotic spices, flavorful marinades, a unique blend that will make every dinner special and memorable. There are claims of everyone wanting seconds and meals that will even bring the kids to the table.

I’m not disputing the claims, I’m just saying, everyone makes the same claim. Is this really The world’s greatest cup of coffee?

So where does all this leave us? Meal assembly stores have catchy, gimmicky names to try and help us remember who they are. They provide the hope of making meals quickly and easily and will even make the meals for us when we simply can’t make the effort ourselves. They look the same, act the same, they even decorate the same. Book a session, pick your meals, come on in.

As stated, at the end of the day, what makes one meal assembly franchise different from another? Is there really any difference to the consumer?

Other Articles of Interest:

    None Found

2 Responses to “Much Ado About Nothing”

  • indie owner:

    I have to disagree about ingredients. We use fresh proteins, delivered from a small specialty company and the difference is huge. We cut and trim our own chops, steaks, etc. Our chicken is fresh, antibiotic free, with no solutions/fillers injected. There is no comparison between that and the frozen IQF breasts many stores use. We also cook and shred our fresh chicken if a dish calls for cooked chicken. Again, no comparison between ours and the uniform dices with sprayed-on grill marks I’ve seen at all my competitors.

    But I see most of your comments are directed at Franchises. Perhaps independent owners, if they are diligent and knowledgeable, have an upper hand here. I know the argument that franchises have more buying power, but because they buy so much pre-prepped food (like the pre-cooked chicken), they may actually spend more per ingredient than an independent that cuts and trims proteins, cuts carrots, blanches asparagus, etc.

    The comment I most hear about my competition–all franchises–is that their food tastes “institutional”. That comes from buying those pre-processed ingredients full of fillers, sodium, and preservatives. I’ll risk throwing away a few bucks worth of fresh basil, thyme or rosemary anyday to avoid selling food that tastes like a school lunch.

    I do believe there are several niches in this industry (family-friendly, gourmet, organic) but with so much competition, stores feel they need to be all things to all customers. I really think the food is the differentiator; but then, McDonald’s still sells a lot of hamburgers.

  • mealblogger:

    Indie Owner.

    Great post! I think that one of the key differentiators between the franchise and independents is the quality proteins. (Although there are some franchises that have better quality proteins than some independents, see comments in the 4th paragraph) My concern is the amount of additional time it takes to actually prep fresh proteins. We used to cut our own steak, pork and salmon, and I for one was glad when we started getting our product pre-trimmed from the distributor. We never did any cooking, and I’m glad we didn’t. As far as having the upper hand, I don’t know either way. Can you actually charge enough to cover the additional labor to do all the prep work and still be profitable? (I’m not asking you, just making a statement)

    I’m also very concerned with the rapidly rising food costs, not just for meal assembly, but all food costs. The late freeze we had this year cost millions in crop damage. The honeybee situation has cost millions in produce. Corn prices have such far reaching effect that most people don’t realize. When the cost of corn goes up, protein prices (beef, poultry, pork) go up due to rising feed costs. Ethanol, (a subject I won’t go into here) is going to cause the cost of many food items to go up. All of these things combine to cause the meal assembly industry (and all food service industries) to have to either increase prices or lower quality or lower profit. The customers don’t seem to understand why the prices keep going up. Haven’t they noticed their grocery bills going up too?
    Nobody ever increased sales by lowering the product quality, so that’s a bad idea. Which leaves lowering your profit, can you stay in business with even less profit?

    You won’t see me making the “franchises have more buying power” comment, I don’t buy it at all. (Pun intended) A franchise with 500+ stores might have some buying power, but none of the meal assembly franchises are big enough, and I doubt they will ever be big enough to actually have any true buying power. Yes they are big enough to make deals with the actual manufacturer, but that hardly constitutes the buying power of a major fast food/QSR/casual dining or even the large sub shops. When my food costs keep going up I have to say I doubt that any real buying power is going on.
    Don’t forget that all that prep time spent cutting, and cooking has some real costs involved too. I do think you might have a point on the topic of does it cost more to purchase the pre prepped product versus prep yourself. I just don’t know.

    As for the institutional comment, this is something that I have planned for an upcoming blog, so I’ll just touch on it here. Some places have better food than others, that’s a fact. I’m sure your food is probably very good. We feel that our food is very good as well. Some of the franchises and independents purchase lower quality food than others. Some franchises always specify the highest quality food item to be purchased, while others allow the franchise to purchase whatever they want just like an independent can. Does the ability to deviate from a specified product lead to better or worse quality? That really depends on each individual owner. Some of my competitors were bragging about the fact that they purchase their steak fresh from the warehouse clubs while I purchase from a main line distributor. This was an odd comparison to make considering that Sam’s club only sells fresh USDA Choice cuts of meat, and we only sell USDA Prime cuts. (for those that don’t know, Prime is better than Choice, followed by Select) It doesn’t really matter where you purchase something from, it matters that it’s a quality product AND a good recipe. Oh and in the interest of full disclosure, we use the IQF chicken breasts. Then again, I have purchased over 3000 cases in the past two years… I sure wouldn’t have wanted to deal with that much fresh chicken breast, and for the record, my spouse prefers fresh to the IQF too.
    Back to the institutional comment, the reason this happens is because the main line distributors sell product to everyone; schools, hospitals, and hotels in addition to casual/fine dining. They have a range of products, does the stuff they sell to the schools, hospitals and hotels taste as good as the products they sell to fine dining, of course not.
    I can’t count the number of blogs I’ve seen in the past couple of years that state that such and such franchise buys their product from (take your pick, US Foods, SYSCO, Food Services of America etc.) and that’s what we had in my (college, high school, hospital, etc) so the food can’t be any good. Do people realize that these distributors deliver food to Morton’s of Chicago? McCormick and Schmick’s? Or any number of other independent/chain fine dining establishments? More than anything I think in some cases it’s more a perception issue than an actual taste issue. This topic will get a full blog entry some time in the future.

    Keep up the good work selling the better quality ingredients. You need to differentiate yourself from all the other meal assembly stores out there. You are absolutely correct; you can’t be everything to everyone. The problem is, your competitors are trying to be and it’s going to hurt everyone.

    Once again, thanks for a great post which helps to further the discussion about the industry.

    The Meal Blogger

Leave a Reply

Recent Comments
Add to Technorati Favorites Small Business Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory Blogarama - The Blog Directory Blog Directory Blog Directory Business blogs Top Blogs Blog Directory Directory of Business Blogs Blog Directory