Businesses that cater to selling time and convenience to busy Americans have tapped into a gold mine. The selling of services that help time-strapped individuals are booming and this shows no sign of letting up as we continue to overtax and overbudget our precious evenings, weekends and fill any spare time with a host of activities ranging from errands, cleaning, medical appointments, shopping, and organizing the many activities that today’s kids embrace.
There’s no denying the kitchen is getting crowded. The meal preparation industry, just a whisper only five years ago, suddenly seems as popular as American Idol. Well, that might be stretching things, but the industry’s stratospheric growth can’t be ignored.
In 2002 there were only four such meal assembly stores, but that number has ballooned to more than 1,100 outlets operated by 378 companies, according to January 2007 figures from the Easy Meal Prep Association. The industry, with estimated revenue of $270 million in 2006, hopes to reach 3,000 stores by 2010.
It’s a crowded field for sure, but Minneapolis-based Sociale Make & Take Gourmet – founded in 2003 by the husband-and-wife team of Jason and Lisa Hake – has sought to differentiate itself in a variety of ways as it seeks to grow from about a dozen locations either open or under development to 200 locations within three years.
At Sociale, customers can come for an hour, socialize with friends, enjoy great appetizers and assemble up to a dozen freezer-ready meals that range from gourmet to kid-friendly in a fun, upscale atmosphere. Time-starved customers can simply stop in and pick-up already-prepared entrees, side dishes, breads and desserts from the Express Freezer. Home delivery is also available in select markets. Business is booming.t
The food, of course, is the star. With creative, healthy recipesdeveloped and tested by a team of Le Cordon Bleu-trained chefs, Sociale strives to provide the freshest, highest-quality ingredients, specializing in hand-cut pork chops and pork tenderloins, Certified Angus beef, chicken and delicious pastas.
“Our food quality is really the most important reason for Sociale’s success,” Lisa Hake says. “Our customers wouldn’t be coming back if they didn’t love our food.”
Sociale has seven stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, along with locations in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Charleston, S.C. Stores in Bismarck, N.D., and Virginia Beach, Va., are under development. The first Sociale opened in Eagan, Minn., in May 2004. The first franchised location opened in September 2006.
While its food takes center stage, Sociale is unique in another way. It is the country’s only meal preparation concept whose stores include a boutique-style, gourmet lobby shop where customers can find a diverse collection of gourmet specialty selections including food and drink items, kitchen gadgets, serving pieces, unique gifts and customized gift baskets, many of which complement customers’ make-and-take gourmet menu items.
Customers, more than 90 percent of whom are women, are drawn by the combination of a meal preparation service and unique retail shopping experience, where many items come from small specialty suppliers and aren’t typically found at other local retailers. The Hakes believe a visit to Sociale should be like coming into a friend’s house.
“Sociale is all about socializing and making cooking easy and fun. At the same time, others just enjoy browsing in our retail area,” Lisa Hake said. “People come with their friends. All of our employees are fun and enjoy interacting with our customers. It’s all very relaxing.”
It can sometimes be hard to distinguish oneself in a crowded, growing industry that seemingly sprouts new competition with each passing week. How does one stand out? For example, more than 100 of the country’s almost 400 meal preparation concepts include the word “dinner” in their name. But Sociale isn’t just more of the same. The Hakes believe their concept is as unique as its name.
“We believe Sociale will have more sustainability because of the power of our brand,” Hake said. “We’re more than just a meal preparation concept since we have the retail component, too. It gives us flexibility as a concept as we grow.”
Jason and Lisa Hake founded Sociale almost by necessity. “We were our target market,” Lisa likes to say. In 2003, Jason was an equity analyst with Piper Jaffray and Lisa was a marketing manager in 3M’s dental division. The couple worked 50-plus hour weeks, had two young children and struggled to find quality family time and balance in their lives.
They considered hiring a personal chef as one way to uncomplicate their lives but the monthly expense of about $600 was too costly. Both Jason and Lisa, however, had long held entrepreneurial aspirations, so they made the decision to pool their talents developed in the corporate world and open Sociale to provide gourmet food that was affordable and obtainable for everyone.
Making the decision to sell gourmet specialty items was almost a natural instinct since Jason’s mother owns several cooking stores in his native Nebraska. “We were always trying to find ideas for a really unique business that no one else had done and really made sense to the market,” Lisa Hake said.
Chef Ampy Versalles-Curtis is Sociale’s head chef and the creative force behind its monthly menu offerings that mix gourmet signature entrees with sure-to-please, kid-friendly favorites. Valedictorian of her class at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, “Chef Ampy” as she is known, has a personality that is as zesty as her recipes. She is the daughter of former Minnesota Twins shortstop and 1965 American League Most Valuable Player, Zoilo Versalles.
“You could feel her passion,” Lisa Hake said of Chef Ampy, who was inspired to pursue a culinary career while visiting relatives in Cuba, where she prepared a meal for her family’s entire neighborhood with great success. “The decision to hire Chef Ampy was a very easy one.”
While the delectable menus of Chef Ampy keep customers coming back to Sociale, so does another benefit. Because many sauces and other gourmet ingredients are prepared from scratch prior to the arrival of customers, Sociale meals take half the time to assemble as those at other meal preparation concepts. It’s not only a timesaving measure but ensures the best possible taste.
“Our customers have less prep work, but we also know the entrée will taste how our chefs intended it to when the customer takes it home,” Hake said.
With Sociale looking to open an average of two new locations each month in 2007, the Hakes said the concept is attracting the interest of individuals much like themselves who have strong business and team-leading experience and a desire to own multiple units or become area developers. Culinary expertise isn’t required.
Sociale already has two husband-wife teams, but women are expected to comprise a majority of its franchisee base. The reason is simple says the buiz owners.
“Women get the concept right away. They understand the value of it,” said Hake, whose customer surveys have shown that 73 percent of Sociale customers have children and 83 percent work outside the home. Almost 90 percent have at least a four-year college degree and almost three-quarters are between the ages of 30 and 45. The average household income is more than $75,000.
About 60 percent of sales at each Sociale are generated from the make-and-take cooking sessions with the remaining 40 percent split between pick-up orders and retail sales from the gourmet lobby shop.
The Hakes financed the start-up of Sociale by tapping their personal savings, 401(k)s, and home equity. Lisa Hake said the couple has been contacted by others looking for an ownership stake in Sociale, but have resisted the overtures. The Hakes simply want to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“It has been draining at times, but all of our efforts will be well worth it in the long run,” Lisa Hake said.
Lisa and Jason Hake are the founders of the wildly popular Sociale Make & Take Gourmet. The couple financed their startup by tapping their personal savings, home equity and 40l(k)s. They are looking to expand this year by opening two
locations each month.