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More new companies spring up to simplify meal prep, save home cooks time

TIMONIUM, Md. (AP) _ Whether it's the shopping, the chopping or the kitchen cleanup that makes busy moms reach for the drawer of takeout menus, one company says it can help simplify the answer to the daily question, ``What's for dinner?''

Let's Dish! promises to help customers make up to a dozen dishes for their families in two hours. They supply the kitchen, recipes, ingredients and clean-up, while leaving the assembly to their customers. The result saves the cooks time when they need it most: the hectic dinner hour.

``It's a lifesaver,'' Ann Pezzulla, who lives in this Baltimore suburb. She knows how to cook, but with four kids, she just doesn't have the time.

When customers sign up online for a session, they can choose eight entrees for $155 or 12 for $195. Each entree serves six, and the offerings are as varied as Alaskan pollock with tequila-lime-mango salsa or carbonara pizza.

After a quick orientation, the ``dishers,'' as they're called, pull their hair back in blue or orange bandanas, don aprons and get down to measuring and mixing.

A recipe posted at each station guides them through the process and allows options for families' preferences _ like adding more garlic or leaving out the broccoli.

``You choose what's right for your family,'' said Lisa Hardiman, who co-owns the business with her husband, Erik Ginsberg, and Rick and Alexa Corcoran. They also try to accommodate vegetarians and people with food allergies.

When they're done, dishers wrap up the food and take it home to the freezer until it's time to pop the dish in the oven.

Ginsberg and Rick Corcoran, who formed a venture capital firm last year, were turned onto the supper preparation idea by a friend who visited a similar business in Texas. After some research, they licensed the Let's Dish! concept from Minnesota working mothers Ruth Lundquist and Darcy Olson, who founded the company in 2003.

With an investment of about $250,000, the two couples opened shop last November. Six months out, they are turning a profit and seeing about 200 customers a week _ more than 90 percent of them busy mothers, Ginsberg said.

``They've done a great job taking what we've started here and putting it to work in Maryland,'' Olson said.

They've done so well they have plans for opening more operations in other Maryland and Virginia communities.

Nationwide, the concept of meal prep outside the home is at the same stage that trendy coffee chains were at 15 years ago, said Bert Vermeulen, organizer for the Easy Meal Preparation Association, which will hold its first major meeting in September.

The idea has spread in suburban areas from Washington state, where Seattle-based Dream Dinners dominates. The largest concentrations are found in the Northwest and in Texas, where Fort Worth-based Super Suppers leads the market, Vermeulen said. There are still very few in the Northeast.

``I've seen more than one that has really taken off like a rocket,'' Vermeulen said. ``They've found something that people were really looking for.''

And there's often more to it that just getting a meal that's healthier than one from a drive-thru window.

``I love to cook and I thought it would be a fun thing to share,'' said Iris Crilley, who lives an hour away but came partly for the socializing aspect of Let's Dish.

Some customers hold group meetings, or throw company and birthday parties. There are parties booked through July, Alexa Corcoran said.

``Just like everyone hangs out in the kitchen at parties,'' she said, there's something about cooking that coaxes people into a convivial mood.
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