Getting an early start on dinner

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Elizabeth Sieber of Cockeysville complains only a little when her 20-year-old daughter calls in the afternoon to say she's coming for dinner that night and, by the way, she's bringing two or three friends.

The truth is Sieber loves that Katie visits from Towson University so often. But those afternoon phone calls don't leave Sieber much time to throw together a meal.

That's why she's at Let's Dish in Timonium on a Friday afternoon, coating frozen pork chops with breading and placing them in zipper bags. The next time a gang of girls shows up on her doorstep, all she'll have to do is bake the chops on a cookie sheet and warm up a spiced-apple mixture she's also making. Let's Dish even recommends a side dish of a green salad with a creamy mustard vinaigrette.

The concept of Let's Dish is simple: Customers spend two hours at the store preparing meals and putting them in freezer bags, and walk out with eight to 12 dishes that can be stashed in their freezers, ready to be cooked and served.

Each month, Let's Dish offers about 15 recipes that can be prepared in the store. Customers can choose eight for $155, or 12 for $195. Each serves between four and six people. (Assuming a serving size of six, the eight-dish purchase comes to $3.23 a serving and the 12-dish to $2.70.)

This month, those dishes include a jambalaya made with shrimp, chicken and veggies; a rigatoni with sausage and artichokes; a potato and sweet pepper frittata; and a Polynesian roast chicken marinated in pineapple, ginger and other flavors. The company's signature dish, individual servings of molten chocolate cakes, is always offered. (To see the selections, or to sign up for sessions, go to www.letsdish.net.)

Let's Dish provides the raw ingredients, all prepped and ready to assemble, gives packaging and labels, and takes care of the cleanup. At home, the dishes are baked, grilled or cooked on the stove top or in a crockpot.

The Timonium location is the first Let's Dish on the East Coast. The idea originated in Minnesota, where Let's Dish opened in Eden Prairie in October 2003.

Owners and founders Ruth Lundquist and Darcy Olson were working moms struggling to get dinner on the table every night when they hit on the concept as a way to make meal preparation easier and more fun. They soon opened a second Minnesota store, and there's a third now on the way.

Meanwhile, in Maryland, two couples, Alexa and Rick Corcoran and Lisa Hardiman and Erik Ginsberg - with five children younger than 7 between them - were looking for a business to start when they heard about Let's Dish.

They purchased a licensing agreement to start Let's Dish stores in Maryland, Washington and northern Virginia. "We hope to do 14 or so in the next two to three years," said Alexa Corcoran. "It's all about a fast, easy, convenient way to make home-cooked meals," she said.

The couples bring a substantial amount of business experience to the venture. Hardiman, who already runs both a home-based clothing business and a computer consulting business, plans to be the hands-on manager in Timonium, with Alexa Corcoran, a former Silicon Valley executive, serving as helper and marketing expert. The husbands have backgrounds in finance.

But do people really want to go to some strange place to prepare their meals?

Judging by the success in Minnesota, the answer appears to be yes. The business is growing faster than anticipated, Lundquist said. An agreement similar to the one in Maryland is bringing Let's Dish stores to Washington state, and similar agreements seem likely elsewhere, she said.

Though a few men do attend "Dish Sessions," as they are called, most clients are women. Olson said customers in Minnesota include busy working moms, empty nesters and single people. Customers can either sign up to attend a session with people they don't know, or can book a party of between 12 and 16 people and get the place to themselves.

In Maryland, evening parties can include wine and beer, but in Minnesota, drinking isn't allowed. Alcohol or no, the experience is meant to be fun.

"There are certainly the functional benefits of getting food on the table, but there are also emotional benefits," Olson said. "It's a guilt-free way of getting together with your girlfriends."

At Sieber's session, Roger Fiery of Jacksonville was the only man. It turns out his wife had broken her foot, and he was happy to prepare the food because she was having a hard time hopping around the kitchen. It was his first time at Let's Dish. "I don't do a lot of cooking, but I'm comfortable," he said.

The Timonium store, open since September, has been building business by word-of -mouth. One self-appointed promoter is Claire Rock of Hunt Valley, who had already attended twice by December and was back for her third session, several friends in tow.

"My husband actually wants me to come more than once a month," she said, greasing tinfoil ramekins for the chocolate cakes. With three kids between the ages of 10 and 15 at home, she's grateful for meals she can just pull out of the freezer. "I don't have time to cook sometimes," she said.

Though her children are picky eaters, "so far, they've liked everything," she said, even the very veggie fajitas made with black beans, corn, peppers and onion. "Normally, they don't like vegetables," she said.

The menus are developed both in Maryland and Minnesota, and the creators strive to include some vegetarian dishes, some meat dishes and some dishes that are low-fat or low-carb.

"We have a list of criteria," said Lundquist. "It has be family-friendly but not boring, somewhat sophisticated, something that is different than what you would normally make. A little bit of a twist, but not too far out there." And, of course, the food must be easy to assemble and freeze.

When customers arrive, they are given a printed sheet with their names on it and the dishes they have chosen. During the session, they move from station to station, each location containing ingredients, measures, whatever packaging is needed and assembly instructions.

If a dish calls for a cup of rice, the 1-cup measure is right in the container of rice. If 3 tablespoons of butter are needed, the sticks of butter will be cut into 3-tablespoon chunks. To a certain extent, dishes can be customized. If you prefer less butter, use less. If you want more, go ahead and add it.

The completed and packaged meals receive a label with cooking instructions and are placed in a freezer until the session's end. Customers are encouraged to bring coolers for carting their dishes home.

Some of the participants noted that assembling a meal at Let's Dish means never having to run to the store at the last minute for a missing ingredient. And it means never having to find a creative use for that extra half-container of sour cream.

"This way, it's so nice," said Sieber. "I have everything ready. I think it's economical, too, because you don't waste anything. There's no thrown-away stuff."

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