Entrée Vous Is Leader In Easy Meal Preparation World

There are many parts to this I disagree with. How can you saw growth has begun to slow and then turn around and say there is room for more growth? Actually, here is how you can say such a thing:

The market has become saturated and growth has slowed because current owners are selling their stores. It will pick back up and growth will be possible because hundreds of stores will be close and groups with deep pockets can now conquer these virgin territories. Plus if you were playing the meal assembly Monopoly game you could sweep in buy stores and equipment for pennies on the dollar and open your store for tens of thousands less than normal.

And Entrée Vous is already positioned itself for fast growth. Bold words considering the current climate. And when other stores are closing how exactly does Entrée Vous expect to succeed using a formula others stores have already implemented. Most stores that have already gone to a staff assembly model and did so several months ago. To say they will need to do this by the end of the year is coming a little to the party isn’t it?

More power to them and their franchise but a lot of this is the same story we’ve been hearing for a year. Which company hasn’t claimed “It’s because of our food” is the key to their success? Out of those 100 franchises in development, how many will actually ever open and how many will even make it a year?

The owners of Entrée Vous have found that consumers are paying more than lip service to the meal-assembly industry.

The Lexington-based chain is the fastest-growing easy meal prep franchise in the country.

The chain had nine stores open at the end of last year. It now has 40 open and development agreements with franchisees for 100 more.

“I think it’s because of our food,” said majority owner and Chief Executive Officer Harriet Dupree, who started the company four years ago out of her catering kitchen on Delaware Avenue.

At Entrée Vous and similar businesses, customers place their orders online, then go to the store to assemble meals made from ingredients that have already been chopped, diced, seared or otherwise pre-prepared. The meals can then be frozen at home and cooked when needed.

Dupree said her company, and others like it, are succeeding because “women want to have a hand in making dinner” but they don’t have the time to come home from work and make a meal from scratch.

“People are just more food savvy and interested in trying new things than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” said Dupree, who trained at the Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School.

Five years ago, there were four stores throughout the nation offering meal-assembly services. Last month, there were 1,371 in the United States.

Bert Vermeulen, founder and president of the Easy Meal Prep Co., which provides consulting services to the industry, said the growth has begun to slow.

Some consolidation is expected in the coming years.

“The cream is going to rise to the top,” Dupree said.

Vermeulen calls it “professionalization of the industry.”

Many of the companies are run by independent operators with only one or two stores, but Vermeulen said more and more successful meal prep companies are being bought by people who have successfully owned and operated other franchises, such as fast-food restaurants.

Dupree has tapped two former Yum Brands executives Bill Fry and Paul Martino to help build her franchise. Fry is chief operating officer; Martino does consulting.

After they joined Dupree a few years ago, she said, “we started developing the business to handle fast growth and lots of stores.”

“These guys knew how to grow a food franchise.”

No restaurant headaches

Fry said meal prep businesses offer several benefits to owners that restaurants don’t.

“We’ve tried to take all the rotten things out of the restaurant business,” Fry said. “We know in advance what people are going to buy. It takes the guesswork out of it. It takes the waste out of it.”

He said the stores can also be run with just a few employees. And the fact that orders are usually paid for in advance with credit cards means fewer headaches at the cash register.

Vermeulen said the revenues meal prep businesses bring in vary widely.

On the lower end of the scale are stores with monthly revenues of less than $6,000 or $7,000. But some of those stores, he said, are successful, because they combine a meal prep business with something else, such as a café or grocery.

The top 10 percent of stores, Vermeulen said, bring in more than $60,000 or $70,000 a month.

Entrée Vous did not provide average store revenues. Franchise fees are $35,000 for the first store; the total investment to open a store runs from $250,000 to $300,000.

Dupree said locations that work best are in higher-end shopping centers with a major grocery store.

However, there has been some push-back from grocery stores that don’t like the competition. Kroger has tried to keep Entrée Vous out of a shopping center out West, Dupree said. “To me, that’s a good sign,” she said.

Publix Super Markets Inc. announced earlier this year that it was trying out its own make-ahead meal outlets.

Seeking bigger piece of pie

The largest meal-assembly chain is Washington-based Dream Dinners, which is credited with starting the trend.

The company opened its first store in 2002 and now has 228 locations, including one on Todds Road in Lexington.

There is room for more growth, Vermeulen said, noting that one meal in 1,000 is made at a meal-assembly store.

“Primarily, what we’re dealing with is a market education situation,” he said. “The potential for this business is dependent on marketing.”

But Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research and consulting firm, said that while the assembly chains seem to be doing “reasonably well on a return-on-investment basis,” he believes they will probably “remain on the fringes” of the industry.

“I’m lukewarm on the whole segment,” he said. “I … question the consumer benefit.”

An eye to the future

To survive, Vermeulen said easy meal prep companies will have to be tuned in to changing consumer desires.

“The staying power of the concept is dependent upon the evolving power,” he said.

For one thing, he said consumers are going to begin demanding that the meals be assembled for them by staff. By the end of the year, he said more than half the meals sold at meal prep companies will be pre-assembled by staff.

Entrée Vous recently rolled out its “fresh take & bake” service, where customers can pop into the store after work and leave with a pre-assembled meal to be cooked at home for that night’s dinner.

That’s also a trend that Suzanne’s Kitchen, an easy meal prep business developed by former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. and represented by actress Suzanne Somers, may try to tap into.

The store had a short-lived flagship store in Tates Creek Centre but closed in April, just five months after opening. Brown promised that the concept would return in an “even more convenient” format, possibly focused on home delivery.

“That’s one to continue to watch,” Vermeulen said of Suzanne’s.

Vermeulen said Entrée Vous shows promise as a franchise because it has focused on the quality of the food and made sure that the first stores it opened were successful.

“That created a good reference point” for would-be franchisees, he said.


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