Publix Effort Targets Harried Family Cooks

Publix Super Markets, a leading southeastern food retailer, is dipping a toe into the fast-growing meals-assembly market. And experts predict other supermarkets will follow in an effort to woo busy consumers who love to cook, hate to chop and are fed up with take-out pizza.

The chain will test Apron's Make-Ahead Meals in two Publix supermarkets in Florida sometime this fall, says a company spokesperson. One will be in Jacksonville, in a Publix store that already has an Aprons Cooking School; another will open as a stand-alone location in Lithia.

With Apron's Make-Ahead Meals-as with most meal-assembly services--customers "can call ahead and place their order, and a Publix associate will assemble the meals for them," says a spokesperson. "Or customers can call or make an on-line reservation, come in and assemble the meals themselves. At the session, the ready-to-cook ingredients are prepared and ready to assemble. The meals are then built and packaged for customers to freeze and use later."



Right now, marketing plans for the pilot stores include the web site, in-store signage and signage in the cooking school as well as in sister stores.

Currently, the make-ahead market is dominated by a handful of franchises, including SuperSuppers, Pass Your Plate and Dinner My Way. The Easy Meal Prep (Business) Association (EMPA) says industry revenue has risen from $7.2 million in 2003 to an estimated $504 million in 2007.

The key to success is pricing: While consumers are willing to pay a bit more than they would in a supermarket setting, they need to believe they are paying significantly less than restaurant prices, says industry observer Phil Lempert, a.k.a. The Supermarket Guru.

So if a company can price six meals, for example, at $105, and each feeds six, that works out to $2.64 a serving, Lempert says. (Based on government estimates, Lempert says a typical U.S. family spends $4,800 per year on food, plus another $3,360 on dining out, equaling $22.36 per day.)

While Publix may be the first to try adapting the concept to a supermarket, "I think we'll see practically every supermarket in the country doing this," Lempert says.

"The business model for these franchises is inefficient, and they stand idle most of the time. It's logical that this concept will move into supermarkets and then grow by leaps and bounds." It also offers supermarkets a way to win back the business they've been losing to fast-food, take-out and casual dining chains.

One way or another, the trend of time-pressured parents looking for healthier meals isn't going away. "Families have less and less time together--Mom is working, Dad is working," says Natalie Nutter, co-founder, Meal Assembly Franchise Review. "Feeding a family is hard work. You have to plan. You have to shop. You have to carry the groceries into the house and then drag them out [of storage], chop them up, and start cooking.

"These meals offer a reasonably-priced alternative. And not only are they healthier than restaurant meals, they allow for more family time-something everyone wants more of."

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