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The Perfect Gourmet expands from TV to retail in Riderwood

Carol Allen has already tasted success in the national gourmet food industry. Her online business, The Perfect Gourmet, has shipped more than 600,000 flash-frozen food packages to as far away as Hawaii since 2006, augmented by her regular appearances on the QVC shopping network.

Ten times in one month alone, she recently drove from her home in Monkton to QVC's studios in West Chester, Pa., about 90 minutes away.

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Now, Allen, 53, is spinning off The Perfect Gourmet in a much more local and offline way. In addition to live broadcasts on cable TV, she can be seen up close and personal in her new retail store of the same name, in the Riderwood Station Shopping Center at Bellona Avenue and Joppa Road.

"I've always wanted a store, if we could find the right location," said Allen, who is managing partner with "a silent partner" from Annapolis.

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She cited the strip center's easy in-and-out access and the Riderwood-Ruxton area's community feel.

"It's smaller, not like [a] destination mall," she said.

A banner in the window announces "upscale gourmet entrees and appetizers for today's busy lifestyle." Handwritten on two chalk boards above the counter of the 800-square-foot space are some of The Perfect Gourmet's mouth-watering offerings — beef with Gorgonzola cheese wrapped in bacon; lobster cobbler in a pie shell with shallots and Romano cheese; antipasto skewers with artichokes, black olives, sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella cheese; Thai chicken with a red curry sauce; bourbon salmon with honey, molasses and brown sugar; duck breast prepared medium rare; lobster mac-and-cheese; turkey roulade stuffed with cranberries and French bread; colossal shrimp in a scampi sauce; and beef and beer, "our version of beef bourguignonne," she said.

"We have about 40 different items," Allen said, including pastas, risotto and bread pudding. She said they will be offered on a rotational and seasonal basis.

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Allen said that although she's had success selling online — both on QVC's website and her own — she wanted to create a more intimate experience with customers.

"This is about being part of the neighborhood and learning who likes what," she said. "I can say, 'I know Liz's husband loves the bourbon salmon but she loved the pot stickers.' I get to know them as customers and then I can say 'I've got something I think you'll love' because I know their tastes."

She said customers can also come in if they need to, for example, send a care package to a friend or relative out of town. After picking an assortment of items, they can add a personal note and then Allen will have the box shipped with dry ice from her warehouse. She noted that her in-store prices are generally lower than her online prices.

If the store in Riderwood is a success, Allen is thinking of expanding into the Frederick area.

"It's a sort of a bedroom community of D.C., and has the same small-town feel," she said.

Kay Churchwell of Panama City Beach, Fla., has been ordering from Perfect Gourmet for several years. A widow, she lives alone now and often eats a few appetizers as a meal, or perhaps half an entree.

"I have not found anything I didn't like; it's all awesome," she said. "I went through withdrawal when they were out of the Cheddar Cheese Bundles for a few weeks. I tried to recreate them but I couldn't do it. They're puff pastry with cheddar cheese and you bake them. It sounds simple but it's not, obviously."

She laughed when asked why she didn't just go to the grocery store and buy frozen food there. Apparently, there's not much of a comparison.

"This is fresh," she said. "You can tell."

Allen was formerly a vice president of sales for a seafood company in New Jersey and a regional manager for a seafood company in Massachusetts. She said her restaurant-quality food is aimed at people who don't have the time or inclination to cook, such as empty nesters, a big demographic in her online and QVC customer base.

"All you do is heat it," she said. "If you know how to turn on an oven, you can be a foodie."

The Perfect Gourmet also is marketed to people who want to throw a dinner party without all the cooking and prep work. For under $50, you can order four entrees from the store and buy a box of rice and a bottle of wine to go with it, Allen said.

Four six-ounce servings of the Thai chicken entree, for example, sell for $22, and 40 chicken pot stickers cost $20. Because the food is frozen, couples don't have to worry about throwing away leftovers that otherwise would go bad. They can store uneaten entrees in their freezers, she said.

There are plenty of other purveyors of prepared foods in the area, from Giant supermarkets to the Graul's and Eddie's of Roland Park markets. Allen said her food, cooked and packaged in Florida and Virginia, is for people "who want to step up a notch. ... The Perfect Gourmet is like having your own personal chef in the freezer."

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