KC area's meal-assembly shops face the recession

Virtually unheard of six years ago, meal-assembly shops heated up quicker than dinner in a microwave.

From less than 50 locations in 2003, these operations — which do the meal planning, shopping, prep work and cleanup while the customer just puts the meals together — flooded the market with 1,353 locations in the U.S. by the end of 2007.

Then the recession rolled in, slumping sales like cool air on a baking soufflé.

“It was a gold-rush mentality. People rushed in to set up a business,” said Bert Vermeulen, president of Easy Meal Prep Co., a Wyoming-based consultant. “But it takes time for people to know you, to find you, to repeat. The building was going on just as the economy was going in the other direction.”

A decrease in demand, decreased ability to handle losses, weak franchises, and some panicked operators who strayed from the key ingredient — the experience itself — led to a shakeout in the industry. Now only about 750 shops are operating across the country, with a handful in Kansas City versus about a dozen just a couple of years ago.

The shops that have “crossed the chasm” — as the owner of a local operation termed it — are refocusing on their original recipe: quick and healthy meal solutions for time-challenged consumers.

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