A Fine Kettle Of Fish

I must admit I’ve been pretty off topic lately. I’ve been singularly focused on writing about meal assembly associations and their interconnectedness with smatterings of my own computer related disasters. I decided to take a moment and step back see where we are and what’s been going on. With the kids back in school it seemed like a good marker to work against.

I went through many of the posts I’ve made and re-read the comments. One thing I did notice (and I made mention of it before) is the decline in the news articles related to the meal assembly industry. Just a couple of months ago the Internet was busting at the seams to let people know about this trend/fad/business and couldn’t write enough about it. Almost everyday there was an article on how this new business was taking off, how it was changing people lives, and how it was bringing families together in ways like never before. All of these were true and they were all good things. I won’t dispute that maybe I was just paying more attention that I had in the past…

But now the articles have slowed to a crawl. Obviously the original ones are still out there (and there are a lot of them), but the amount of new coverage seems to be dwindling. Articles on a new franchise starting up, or an expansion, or owners bringing the idea to their area were all over the place. There are still plenty of blogs out there talking about how they tried a new place with their friends and what they thought of the experience, but the major coverage has cooled.

Has the business become common place and really isn’t worth reporting on anymore? Is it not news anymore? Or has the industry as a whole slowed with so many stores already in place and franchises not selling like the wildfire they were earlier in the year? Was there a downturn and the media moved onto their next “darling”?

Articles in 2005 wrote this was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
The articles in 2006 wrote how this was the hottest franchise there was and everyone should jump on board.
Even 2007 started out with wildly fluctuating figures on how many stores were going to open. Billions were going to be spent by the end of the year and several thousand stores would dot the country from coast to coast.

I will completely skip the EMPA nonsense. I’ve discounted that group all together.

But is meal prep still the hottest thing going? This summer certainly didn’t show that meal assembly was on the minds of all the customers. Sales have been way off from all indications. Sessions barely have attendees, there are tons of gimmicks and giveaways to get people in the store, back to school specials galore, gift certificates and all sorts of outdoor/grilling ideas. But these have been from the website of the franchises themselves and not coverage from media outlets. The stores are plugging along as best they can and quite honestly with very little help from corporate offices.

And where are the franchise moguls? Where are the big media campaigns from the major franchises? Let me offer this as a completely odd comparison; if a company like GoDaddy.com can spend millions of their advertising dollars to create Superbowl ads, where in the devil are the meal assembly ads? Where are the magazine ads, where are the quick TV spots, how about sponsoring a TV show or something? Super Suppers far and away leads in developing food tie-ins, but even they haven’t backed a chef or cooking show of any sort. Look at Carraba’s. They created their own show as a way to sponsor and promote their brand. They show some fun recipes, have a good time, entertain and let people get to know them. They personalize themselves and give that family feel to coming into their restaurant. And of course they’re not the only ones. Ming Tsai, Rick Bayless, Jacques Pepin just to name a few. What did Super Supper and Dream Dinners do? Put out a cookbook that no one really needed or wanted? In a world with millions of unread cookbooks, the last thing a busy family needs is another one.

And why do I mention GoDaddy when they are in a completely different business? Quite simply I like Bob Parson’s attitude and philosophy toward business. He’s obviously in business to make money, but he is also having a good time. And he makes it personal. He is always adding new features and updating his services. He has his own blog where he talks about business and what he plans to do next. He had the GoDaddy chopper made by the guys from America Chopper (a big media move), he rides his motorcycle all over the country promoting himself and visiting with people. He talks about the experiences of his life – good and bad and gives you the sense he’s a real guy. He even puts his ads on his own site, just another reason to come and visit him. It makes you want to do business with him. And he has gone from being the upstart in the domain name business to the #1 registrar. People need food and they need domain names… :)

But back to the topic of media. Is TV too expensive? Then why not go ultra-geek and make a YouTube cooking video? YouTube and the dozens of copycat sites are the new media outlets. Why not take advantage by making 10-15 minute videos of putting meals together and plastering them all over the Internet? Not only would it be novel and new, it would generate quite a bit of press of talking about how a food company is taking advantage of technology. Dogs on skateboards make it into iPhone videos, why can’t two multimillion dollar corporations come up with new ways to reach customers? Why is everything being saddled on the backs of individual store owners? If the corporate franchise isn’t going to lead the media blitz then who is? Do they really just expect everyone else to keep writing about them so they can sit back and do nothing?

And for that matter why couldn’t an individual store owner make their own YouTube commercial and put it on the Web? Most people have a video camera at their disposal or you can easily buy one for less than $300 which would be more than enough for web content. A quick little trip through the store right up to the station where you see someone put together the meal in mere minutes to show how easy it is. Happy smiling faces putting meals together. There is so much you could do and without the hassles of regular commercial time limits who knows what you could create. You could be the star of your own little cooking show! Corny, yes, but probably wildly effective. If people are using blogs and MySpace and other Internet venues, why not jump on board and come up with something for YouTube. Plus, if you make it “good enough” you can make quite a name for yourself since things spread like wildfire. Maybe a dog on a skateboard making meals??? :)

I still think 2007 is the make or break year. This year started off with all the momentum of 2006, but as I see it, it has run out of steam. Summer was dead slow for many and I don’t see the usual/expected/anticipated surge of sales for the new school year. Nothing new has been added to the offerings by the major franchises. The last big thing they did was to offer to split the meals. If that’s innovation then this industry is doomed. Other corporations hint and tease about what to expect for the new year. New body styles for cars, faster processors and new built in features for computers, new features added to the next version of the operating system or word processing software, or updates and changes to the next big digital camera. Each market wants to hint at what they are doing next, just enough to keep people interested. What is the meal assembly industry doing? What things can consumers expect to help them during the holiday months? What conveniences can they expect in 2008 whether it is in the store itself or through the website?

And besides offering franchise numbers and trying to get people to buy things what is the meal assembly association doing?

Independent store owners have the advantage here. They can adjust and react overnight to circumstances. Dream Dinners and Super Suppers will take months to implement something new and then they will spend the next few months fixing it so it works correctly for the customer. Companies are slow to react and adapt. There have been so many missed opportunities so far:

  • Wine pairings with the meals.

  • Salads, desserts and appetizers.

  • Wider variety of meals – After 3+ years it still beef, chicken, pork and some pasta.

  • What was the latest innovation in this industry? The 3 serving meal?

  • Back to school offerings from corporate. Coupons or other promo to get people to sign up for the new school year. (Clothing stores were offering huge discounts to get people to come in and shop. It worked, they hooked me!)

  • What about a corporate blog? It would be an easy way for the corporate owners to connect with customers, discuss new ideas and get feedback. It would also make them seem more real and accessible.

And so many other things could be done to help owners. Shared cost of advertising, sponsorships, owner discussion forums and hosting of store related blogs just to name a few. There is so much to do in this industry, but alas, I don’t see any of it getting done.

To me September marks the relative end of the year. Kids go back to school, summer comes to an end and then there is the big focus on the holidays, travel and family time. There are sports starting up and plenty of things going on right until the end. It all seems quiet in the meal assembly camps. It seems they too have taken the summer off and are spending more time thinking of the holidays than the direction of their companies and this industry.

Now don’t get me wrong. I thought this was a great industry four years ago. And in many respects I think this is still a great industry. But I think it has become stagnant, there is a lack of leadership, direction and innovation. If this industry is going to survive beyond the end of the year, then the expansion needs to come in services offered, menu choices, owner benefits, customer loyalty and name recognition and not in the sheer number of stores.

There may already be indicators that consumers have moved on from this idea. If meal prep stores want to stay in customers minds they need to come up with some new ways to make themselves visible and known. Corporate offices need to step up to the plate and act like real corporations and stabilize their brand before they have no brand left.

It’s been a rocky summer and right now, I don’t see anything being done to turn this game around…

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