Couple opens area’s first entree preparation service

TRAVERSE CITY – In this area and all across the country, family dinnertime is a cause for anxiety in the minds of those cooking it.

Opening in Traverse City this month is a store where locals can make a month's worth of meals in two hours flat, and have fun doing it.

When Natalie and Jeff Terrell heard about the concept of entree preparation from a friend, they decided to investigate further. For a year, they visited and researched other food preparation businesses and franchises on a quest to come up with the perfect business model encompassing their own ideas. The result is Always Prepared, an independent entree preparation store that is the first of its kind in northern Michigan.

This ingenious business is a store where the workers are also the customers. Customers put in a couple hours of instruction, ingredients assembly, and socializing, then head home with enough ready-to-cook entrees to feed a family of four to six with three hassle-free meals a week for a month, all for under $190, which translates into less than $3 per serving.

Always Prepared is located in Tom's East Bay Plaza on U.S. 31 in Traverse City. The facility, designed by the owners, was remodeled to reflect a gourmet commercial kitchen. When opened, Always Prepared clients will have 20 assembly stations in a kind of horseshoe fashion with glass door refrigerator units nearby.

Always Prepared procedure follows the same as the national model, with selection of entrees from a monthly menu on their web site or in person at the store; placing an order at least four days in advance via the web site, fax or phone and scheduling an assembly session.

All ingredients are prepared by Always Prepared staff ahead of time. The client assembles the entree and returns home with the prepared product in containers with cooking instructions.

"The beauty of this service is three-fold," co-owner Jeff Terrell pointed out. "It saves time because we do all the planning, shopping, prepping and clean-up. It likely will save on the grocery and restaurant budget. And, it will save your waistline by facilitating more healthful, balanced meals."

Entree preparation doesn't eliminate shopping altogether. You still have to buy the salad or vegetable to go along with the main dish, but suggestions for side dishes are included in the finished product.

Co-owner Natalie Terrell worked in the education field, but enjoyed cooking as a hobby. She has been busy putting together recipes.

Each month, Always Prepared's menu changes, offering the client 14 different menu choices. Entrees are chef-approved to ensure good taste, texture and storability.

"I do go through recipe books and the internet for entree possibilities. I try them and freeze them and see how well they do," Natalie explained. "There's also a chef out of Grand Rapids that has already done research (for the industry) on entrees that freeze well."

We're not talking tuna-noodle casserole, either. How about beef and mushroom stroganoff, chicken breast stuffed with spinach, blue cheese and bacon and a grilled lime cilantro Tilapia with a honey glaze?

"We've had more variety in the last two weeks than we've had probably in six months," said a friend of the Terrells who agreed to try out some of the recipes.

As for the cost of the sessions, 12 full entrees that serve from four to six people are $189. This session is scheduled for two hours.

If you prefer only six full entrees for four to six people, the cost is $99, scheduled for an hour's assembly time.

For small families or lighter appetites, the customer can split the entrees into two half sized portions. Always Prepared offers meal assembly and meal delivery services at an additional fee.

Down the road, after they're more established, the Terrells have plans to put in place specialty programs. They will be offering special menus for the Holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas), consisting of a complete meal, including the side dishes.

Also, they're considering featuring entree recipes from local restaurants, using their logos on the menu.

In the works are birthday parties for kids, and bridal and baby showers, where one of the entrees the client makes is donated to the bride or mother-to-be. And gift certificates will be available for that someone who deserves a treat.

Catering to customers with busy lives is the principle behind Always Prepared. The entree preparation business is offering a new way for clients to get dinner on the table and spend time with their families, all in the same evening. Empty nesters, couples without children, those who don't like to cook, and vacationers can benefit from this concept, too.

The concept is already gaining momentum in this area, as another entree preparation franchise business, Main Dish Kitchen, is scheduled to open in Traverse City in November.

Always Prepared is open six days a week and offers up to three sessions per day (based on demand). For details, call 932-7888 or check out their site at alwaysprepared.net for current menus and kitchen schedules. BN

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