Local meal subscription services deliver zero-prep dinner options

ON THE GO: Dustin Orofino launched his subscription meal service, Asheville Pro Kitchen, in 2017. He caters to busy people looking for quick, healthy and satisfying options. “Working families with new babies and kids are so busy they don’t have time to cook, and many seniors can’t or just don’t want to cook much anymore,” Orofino says. “We want to anticipate needs and fill them.” Photo courtesy of Asheville Pro Kitchen

It’s 5:17 p.m., and you’ve just gotten home from work. It’s your spouse’s turn to pick up the kids from day care/soccer practice/piano lessons, and you have 43 minutes to get food on the table before real-life hunger games kick in.

You:

  • Open refrigerator door and stare blankly at the contents hoping something lurking inside will miraculously inspire a meal plan. You do this several times a week, with the exact same outcome. Nada. So you …
  • Jump online to a delivery service and scroll through restaurants for something reasonably healthy. You become overwhelmed with [bad] choices and instead …
  • Intercept spouse via cellphone to suggest meeting at a restaurant. But too late, they’re pulling in the driveway! So you opt for the last resort of the harried parent …
  • “One pepperoni, one cheese, stat!”

The scenario is replicated on a daily basis in millions of households across America. According to Food Genius, a Chicago-based research firm and food service data provider, as many as 80% of Americans don’t make plans for that day’s dinner until at least 4 p.m.

“It was the same conversation over and over,” says Asheville resident Kani Nicolls of the daily dinner dilemma in her two-person household. “You come home from work and you’re tired and hungry, and the conversation begins: What should we have for dinner? We should cook. There’s nothing here to cook. Where should we go? We wanted convenience, and we wanted to eat healthy, so we started looking at meal service options.”

Kits or cooked?

Even before Alexa began eavesdropping in our homes, big national companies and small local entrepreneurs heard these exasperated conversations and competed to cook up solutions. One of the first subscription-based meal kit delivery services was Blue Apron, launched in 2012 in Long Island City, N.Y. The company expanded through opening large fulfillment centers in California, New Jersey and Texas, blanketing the country with its branded boxes packed with recipes and all the ingredients necessary to cook them at home.

Imitators followed with varying degrees of success, but over time, many found their customer bases dissatisfied with the time and effort it still took to assemble a meal. Thirty minutes can seem like forever to a cranky toddler or hangry adult. Next up on the food chain: subscription services that deliver fully cooked meals to your door, reducing box-to-table time from 30 minutes to three (depending on the meal).

Freshly, founded in 2015 by Michael Wystrach, an investment banker who didn’t like cooking and found himself putting on weight thanks to too much takeout, delivers fresh-not-frozen, prepared meals weekly via subscription. About 30 unique meals are on each rotation, all of them gluten-free with options for low-calorie, low-carb, dairy-free, vegetarian and paleo-friendly.

A weekly 12-meal plan can feed a family of four three meals per week starting at $107.99. Pricier and more upscale — complete with celebrity clientele — is Sakara, which offers organic, plant-based, gluten/dairy/egg-free ready-to-eat breakfasts, lunches and dinners. The three-day Signature Plan with three meals and drinks per day is $239 per week per person.

Looking for local

So convenience, check. Healthy, check. But it was the local aspect of Asheville’s Eden-Out Organic Meals that sealed the deal for Nicolls, who relies on the service for dinner several nights a week. “We didn’t even consider any of the national ones,” she says. “I think their carbon footprint is huge, so I couldn’t justify that. One of the big reasons we do this is because it is local.”

FRESH FROM THE FARM: Vegetables for the vegan, non-GMO dishes created by Eden-Out Organic Meals, such as this Japanese onion and mushroom soup, are harvested from owner Chris Sharpe’s farm plus other local operations, including Gaining Ground Farm and R Farm. Photo courtesy of Eden-Out

Chris Sharpe and his family purchased Veg-In-Out from founder William Najger in 2014. “We have a farm in Weaverville, Gnome Town Farm, and we were interested in pursuing value-added products,” he explains. “William was making organic meals, but he wasn’t growing the vegetables. We knew we could grow the vegetables and make the meals.”

The produce for the vegan, non-GMO, organic meals created by Sharpe is harvested from his farm and supplemented by items from Gaining Ground Farm and R Farm, also local. “I changed the menu quite a bit to reflect my own style,” Sharpe says. “I’ve been cooking all my life. I cook intuitively. Everything is in my head; I don’t actually write things down.”

Hannah Jeske, Eden-Out’s office manager and also owner of R Farm, laughs in agreement. “Some of our customers have asked about a cookbook, and we’ve thought about it,” she says. “But it doesn’t really translate from Chris’s head to the page.”

Each week’s menu offers seven vegan and mostly gluten-free entrées, including a hearty soup, a couple of salads and a dessert add-on, if requested. A 24-ounce serving is two portion sizes; a full order of nine 24-ounce items is $97.50 with delivery or $92.50 for pickup from the Woodfin kitchen. Half-orders of five 24-ounce entrees are available, as are 10-packs of 12-ounce entrées that single people often opt for.

Sharpe cooks in the Woodfin kitchen Sundays and Mondays for deliveries on Tuesdays between 2 and 6 p.m. He changes the menu weekly after seeing what produce is available and abundant and posts the new menu on Wednesday for customers to peruse before the Saturday night order deadline.

“We have a lot of long-term customers and new people exploring this kind of eating,” Jeske says. “We kind of think of Eden-Out as a transitioning service for people who want to start plant-based eating but don’t know how to cook that way.”

Healthy choices

A desire to live a healthier lifestyle inspired Kim Isner and her husband to join F45 Training gym in South Asheville a couple of years ago, which led them to Asheville Pro Kitchen, launched by restaurateur/entrepreneur Dustin Orofino in January 2017.

“We were in our 40s, and decided we needed to be healthier,” says Isner. “We joined the gym, and a few months later Dustin started offering delivery of his meals there. We like that it’s not processed, and we know who is cooking it and where. I don’t have to plan it, shop for it, cook it or clean up after it. He delivers on days we are there anyway, and it couldn’t be easier. We have never had a meal we didn’t like.”

Orofino grew up in the family restaurant business in New York state. When he moved to Asheville in 2015, he first worked as a chef for Green Life (now Whole Foods) while he was developing the Pro Kitchen concept of healthy, fully cooked meals, individually packaged and labeled with all nutritional information.

“When I first launched, I started going to fitness centers and gyms to tell them about myself and my company,” he says. “I suggested that if they would allow me to make their gym a delivery location, it could help their members reach their goals. They let me set up a table with samples and information to introduce my service to members. Those meet-and-greets, customer referrals and social media grew the company.”

Asheville Pro Kitchen is subscription-based (the minimum order is four meals, starting at $40, eight meals for $75) with deliveries on Tuesdays and/or Thursdays. Clients place orders by Saturday night from a list of eight options, which change weekly. Orofino cooks in a certified commercial kitchen the day before each delivery for optimal freshness.

In addition to offering pickup from about a dozen fitness centers, the Lululemon retail store in Biltmore Village and Blue Sky MD, Asheville Pro Kitchen does home delivery in the greater Asheville area. The company’s marketing targets day care centers and retirement communities. “Working families with new babies and kids are so busy they don’t have time to cook, and many seniors can’t or just don’t want to cook much anymore,” Orofino says. “We want to anticipate needs and fill them.”

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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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