What to make for dinner? Though it’s a seemingly innocuous question, it can quickly become a major consumer of time if a suitable answer isn’t found quickly. Some people are kings and queens of the kitchen and plan meals all week; some subscribe to popular meal prep kits such as Blue Apron and Plated; some just grab takeout.
There’s another way to make sure hot, fresh food is on the table, and it’s an even easier alternative to getting takeout or doing meal prep: call-ahead dinner services.
“It’s really grown in just the three months that we’ve been around,” said Rose Lowell, who with her friend chef Annie Mahle started What’s Cookin’ With Rose and Annie last autumn out of her commercial kitchen in Lincolnville. “And we haven’t even started in with the summer crowd. … The idea of having fresh cooked food, delivered, where you don’t have to worry about cooking for two or three days, has had a lot of response.”
These small businesses are as simple as they sound. A menu is posted offering a selection of entrees, side dishes and desserts. Customers order what they want, and on a specific day, the freshly prepared dishes are delivered to the customer, who now has enough food for between one and three meals for the week.
Mahle, who with her husband, Jon, owns the Schooner J & E Riggin out of Rockland, on which she operates culinary cruises in the summer, wanted an opportunity to cook outside of the tourist season, and starting a dinner service business with her chef friend fit that bill perfectly.
“I’ve got the cooking bug,” said Mahle. “Here, it’s all about logistics, and making sure there’s something for everyone. You have to be very efficient, and very aware of people’s dietary needs, and make sure you offer several different things for people to choose from each week. It’s not like being a personal chef, where everything is so personalized.”
Mahle and Lowell each Tuesday post a menu online, and customers have until the end of the week to phone or email their orders in. The following Monday, they cook, and on Monday afternoon and evening, they deliver to customers between Belfast and Rockland. Sample dishes include chicken pot pie, Italian wedding soup, roasted chicken with lemon and crusty peasant bread, made in Lowell’s brick oven. Prices vary depending on number of servings.
Lowell has her own commercial kitchen — in addition to her dinner service business with Mahle, she has a bakery called La Dolce Vita — but not all dinner service businesses own their own kitchen. Some, such as Kathy Flynn, who operates Kathy’s Kitchen, use a rental commercial kitchen, such as the one at the Thompson Community Center in Union.
“I’ve been a home cook for 30 years, and my dream was always to open a restaurant. But that wasn’t really in the cards, so I thought, ‘Let’s try something different from a restaurant. Let’s try making some really good food, healthy food, for people here in the Union area, so they don’t have to go to Rockland,” said Flynn. “People get tired of pizza. It’s not healthy. They want variety. There’s no Chinese restaurant in Union. There’s no Mexican.”
For January, Flynn has been offering Chinese dishes, including Mandarin chicken, garlic sesame green beans and wonton soup, with prices ranging from $5 for four egg rolls, to $14 for a quart of Szechuan beef with rice. She offers free delivery within 15 miles of Union, including surrounding towns such as Appleton and Jefferson. For February, she’ll offer Mexican food.
“Eventually, I’d like to have a trailer so I can have my own kitchen and have some more flexibility, but for now, working out of the community center has been great,” said Flynn. “I wanted to have my own business. I wanted to do something other that sit in front of a computer.”
Access to a commercial kitchen is one of the main hurdles for those who want to start a pre-made dinner service or other small-scale food business. There are several commercial kitchens available to rent across Maine, including the one in Union, as well as kitchens at the Halcyon Grange in Blue Hill, the Orland Community Center and Food Forge in Whitefield. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension also offers limited use of its commercial kitchen at its Bangor office.
Dinner takeout isn’t an entirely new concept — some restaurants and other eateries also offer pre-made meals, such as Frank’s Bakery in Bangor, which has offered daily pre-made dinner specials for many years. The Daily Soup in Belfast began as a strictly lunch and dinner service establishment, but it has grown to offer limited seating in addition to its daily soup and entree menu for pre-made dinner service.
Both Mahle, Lowell and Flynn have noticed that their clientele span a few different demographics. Some are retired or elderly folks that appreciate having a meal brought to them once per week. Others are busy families or professionals that simply don’t have time to cook — while others are people that just don’t want to cook, period, whether it’s from scratch or with the help of a meal kit service such as Blue Apron.
Liz Warfel has operated Liz’s Kitchen, a Falmouth-based pre-made dinner service, since 2014, offering local, organic dishes such as chicken with black beans and apple salsa and wheat berry salad with roasted beets and fennel. She’s found that her clientele spans that full, aforementioned gamut.
“It’s a lot of very busy people, and some retired folks, too, but a lot of people are just not interested in cooking — but they still want that home-cooked, personal touch,” said Warfel. “I see a lot of the same people every week. It’s nice to keep in touch with them.”
Mahle said many of her and Lowell’s customers also want that home-cooked feel.
“If you have the disposable income, for some families and couples, it’s just important to them to have good, local, warm to my heart, family-style food,” she said.