Co-founder, Dream Dinners
How many times in recent memory have you resorted to making the same old suppers due to lack of time and truly easy dinner ideas?
How much would you like to serve up entrees like toasted pecan chicken, lemon-baked tilapia or steak gorgonzola for easy and healthy weeknight family meals?
Stephanie Allen makes it possible with Dream Dinners, which she and her business partner, Tina Kuna, launched in Snohomish, Washington in 2002. Today Dream Dinners offers 208 locations where you can prepare up to 12 dinners in about two hours and freeze them for later.
Meet Stephanie and Tina at the Ladies Who Launch Live event in Seattle on October 26, check out their new cookbook (’Dream Dinners: Turn Dinnertime into Family Time with 100 Assemble-and-Freeze Meals,’ published by Morrow Cookbooks), and get highlights of their story from Stephanie below.
Even Chefs Struggle with Suppertime
“I had my own catering company and my initial business plan was to do one to three jobs a month. Over the years, we built that up to doing six to eight a day. As I was juggling that, I was having trouble getting my own dinner on the table. One day I was sitting around with a girlfriend having coffee and complaining about the problem.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got the culinary background, why don’t we get together on Saturdays and make our dinners and throw them in the freezer?’ We did that once a month for seven years.”
A Small Town Talks
“Snohomish is not a big town. During those seven years, we developed a reputation with our friends. The January after 9/11, I was bombarded with calls from friends who said, ‘I know how important family dinnertime is. Can you help me to cook meals for my family?’ I probably had 15-20 people ask me. I decided I would open my catering kitchen one night a month and we would have girls’ night out (to prepare make-ahead dinners together).”
You Know You Have a Promising Business Idea, When…
“I sent out an email to everyone about this, and half an hour or 45 minutes later, I started getting e-mails from people I didn’t know. As I started to book my second session. I called my friend Tina and said, ‘I think there’s a business here. Can you help me?’
“By the second month in April (of 2002), we had over 100 people come in. By June we had our first Dream Dinners store. Now we have 2,000,000 servings a month.”
Start-Up Financing – Straight out of Savings
“I had my savings account and Tina had a savings account, and then we both took out a loan. We both put in about $5,000m then took out another $10,000 loan. It was scary. All of our eggs were in one basket. But we knew we could make a business out of it. We knew we could do it. We ended up taking out a Small Business Administration loan when we did the whole franchise thing. Since then we have been able to pay it all back, and we’re operating and growing within our budget.”
Great PR from the Start
“Working Mother magazine called one day and wanted to do story on us. The story turned into a feature and the feature turned into us being on the cover of the magazine.”
(Dream Dinners is quite the media darling… the company was featured in The Wall Street Journal in February 2006, The New York Times in March and Family Circle in April.)
“From the beginning, we worked with a writer or publicist, and continue to do so. It really is the trusted source who gets your name out there so quickly.”
How They Franchised So Fast
“By being proactive. We found a great attorney and checked into the franchise world and what that was all about. We wrote our UFOC (Uniform Franchise Offering Circular) and by June 2003 we were approved to sell our franchises. Even before we had approval, we had people calling (wanting to be franchisees). We get about 125 applications a day. We average about 10 franchise sales per month.”
The Perfect Franchisee
“We hand select each owner to make sure they have the mission and values that we do. One of the first things we ask them is, ‘If you could waive your magic wand and serve people in any way, what would you do?’ We look for owners who want to serve others. They want to make a difference in life.”
On Competitors and Copycats
“At first it (the many companies entering the fix-and-freeze meal business) really bothered me, but if they’re doing a good job, they’re only servicing the goal. The goal is to get families to have healthy home-cooked dinners together.”
Living the Dream
“First you register online, where you choose anywhere from 36-72 servings and make a reservation time to come in. Usually the first time, people come in with friends or as a mother-daughter team. We have all the ingredients ready for the meals because they pre-ordered what dinners they want to make. Recipe cards are at the station. All you’re doing is following the recipe, adding more of what you like and leaving out what you don’t.
“We have four signature dinners that rotate every four months – they’re the ones people constantly request. Chicken Mirabella is popular. We have a fabulous Spanish dish with chicken, rice, corn, and black beans with salsa and cheese. Our herb-crusted flank steak… one of the franchise owners in Las Vegas entered it into a contest and it won Best Red Meat. The pork with granny smith apples and a savory yet sweet sauce is also popular.”
“Managing growth. To go from July of 2002 with our two stores to 208 today… establishing training programs is necessary, establishing coaching staff, putting those together and making sure we maintain consistency, which is critical.”
“All the families that we have helped. We have books of e-mails and thank-you notes. Hundreds people have written to us saying what a difference we have made in their lives.”
Family Lessens Fear
“My dad had his own business (construction), my mom had her own business… she did sales, like toy parties. She always had something she was selling. My brother has his own business. We have a family that likes to be their own bosses. When you grow up in that kind of environment, you’re not as afraid.”
Words of Advice – On Work and Weaknesses
“We used to have a pastor who would say, ‘Recipes don’t bake cookies.’ Dream big, and then go do the work.
“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. It makes a difference when you hire your weaknesses. You really have to align yourself with skills where you need help, but you also have to hire people who have the same mission and vision and values (as you do).”
“When we started our catering business, we read ‘The E-Myth.’ It’s so key to learn how to work on your business, not in your business. Recently we bought copies (more than 200) for all of our franchise owners.”