It’s somewhat understandable that when people drive past The Dinner Store, which recently opened on Center Street in Brewer, they don’t know exactly what to make of it. Is it a restaurant? A market? A kitchen supply shop? What the heck is a dinner store?
The answer? None of the above. The Dinner Store is the brainchild of Alison and Stan Small, and it’s not a takeout joint or a place to buy knives and forks. It’s a way for anyone without a lot of time on their hands to take out the first two steps in making a meal — shopping and preparation — and skip to the last two steps. You know, the fun ones: the cooking and the eating.
“We aren’t restaurant replacement. We’re grocery store replacement,” said Alison. “You don’t come in and eat here. You can come here and prepare the meal yourself to take home and cook, or we prepare it ourselves for you to take home and cook. We’re just cutting out the middleman, kind of.”
The Smalls, who were married last fall, wanted to open their own business, and entertained several ideas before settling on The Dinner Store. The meal-preparation model was first trotted out in the early 2000s, with the franchise Dream Dinner, which had stores all over the country. The Smalls found the idea of operating a franchise not so interesting, though, so they struck out on their own.
“We liked the idea of personalizing it, and having the chance to do our own recipes and ingredients,” said Alison. “Too many of the recipes from the franchise relied on good ol’ cream of mushroom soup. Lots of canned stuff. We wanted to use all fresh ingredients, and tailor it to our customers’ wants and needs. We change the menu every month.”
“So many of the franchises have gone under now,” said Stan. “There’s too much overhead, and they dictate your menu too much. We love to cook. And we love to eat. And we wanted to share that.”
Customers have two options: Come in and prepare your own meal during one of several assembly sessions scheduled each week, or let Alison and Stan make it for you. There’s a meal of the month that’s available for a one-time purchase right at the store, but typically, customers are asked to buy a minimum of six two-serving meals, priced at $3.75 per serving. If Alison and Stan assemble it, the cost jumps up to $3.95 per serving.
“It’s more efficient for us to just make it for you,” said Stan. “But we definitely want to have the option available to people to come in and assemble it themselves.”
The meals range from traditional comfort foods, like homemade macaroni and cheese, corn chowder and baked stuffed pork chops, to more exciting options like sweet-potato burritos, orange hazelnut chicken and chicken adobo, adapted from Alison’s grandmother’s recipe. The kicker? Almost all of the meals can be prepared in under 20 minutes.
“In the time it takes to make a box of mac and cheese with hot dogs, you could have a fresh, home-cooked meal for just a dollar or two more,” said Alison. “It’s not much more expensive than buying everything at the store, and you don’t have to buy extra.”
It’s also a lot healthier than grabbing fast-food options or a frozen pizza.
“We have a whole-grain option for most meals, and we have vegetarian options when possible,” said Stan. “So much of it is so fresh, with very little added fat, that it’s just kind of naturally good for you. It’s definitely better than any fast food or takeout you’re probably going to get.”
So far, The Dinner Store is busy building its clientele. They’ve already got a number of returning customers, including Eleanor Miller of Bangor, who has attended meal-assembly sessions with her husband, Lew, her daughter Kimberly and her granddaughter Emma.
“[My husband and I] both work and end up eating out too often. … However, if we eat at home, there is the expense of food waste due to stocking the cupboard with a lot of groceries that don’t get used before they spoil,” said Miller. “The Dinner Store provides us the chance to have a variety of food choices, while providing exact amounts of needed ingredients, solving both the restaurant and at-home negatives while providing the positive aspects of both.”
Reenie and Allan Elkin own the Center Street building from which The Dinner Store operates, as well as their own business, General Appliance. At first, they were unsure about the nature of the Smalls’ venture, and whether it would work. They tried The Dinner Store themselves one night, though, and with that first dinner — shepherd’s pie, Reenie’s favorite — they were hooked. They were among The Dinner Store’s first returning customers.
“It is just so nice for us to go pick out a couple of nights a week, and say, ‘I’m just going to take it out of the freezer.’ It’s way better than KFC. It’s healthier. I shave 50 bucks off my grocery bill each week and put it toward that,” said Reenie Elkin. “Plus, it’s just nice to know who put it all together. It’s made right here. I really think they’ve got a good idea going.”
The Smalls are busy keeping the store running smoothly and building a buzz, but if things continue to grow they will have to invest in more employees and resources. They want to try new foods, offer meal plans for businesses and other large groups, and even use their product as a way for organizations to raise money.
“We’d like to do this as a fundraiser for schools,” said Alison. “When schools do fundraisers, you end up buying a lot of gift wrap and horrible cookie dough. Why not buy dinner, and make everyone happy? Everyone loves a home-cooked meal.”
A full menu and a schedule of meal-assembly sessions can be found at www.mainedinnerstore.com. To place an order, call 989-2188.