Northwest NEWS

October 15, 2001

Features

Finally, a meals solution program for the harried household

by Deborah Stone
   Most people don't start thinking about what they're going to make for dinner until 4 in the afternoon. Then they realize that either they haven't defrosted the item they need or they don't have all the necessary ingredients, which mandates an extra trip to the market to somehow fit into their busy schedule. What often results in this situation is a quick stop at the local fast food joint to pick up something on the go, or if you happen to be in my house, your family will find themselves eating scrambled eggs or soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for the third time that week.
   If you find yourself nodding in agreement to the above picture, then you're not alone and help is definitely available. Through word of mouth, I learned about Kay Conley and her business, Month of Meals, Inc., a meals solution program for the harried household.
   Conley, a Carnation resident, began her business in 1999, operating first out of a church kitchen and later moving to an 8,000-square-foot shared-use community kitchen facility in Kirkland.
   She had been in the food industry for many years, both in front of and behind the scenes, as a pastry chef, a food broker and the owner of a small catering business. She received her training at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and then completed her education by earning a degree in marketing, in order to have both perspectives in the industry.
   As a food broker, Conley helped grocery chains with their take-home meals programs and then later, as a caterer, she began working on the concept of Month of Meals. "I had heard a radio show years ago where some chefs had talked about this type of concept and it really struck home with me," explains Conley. "What attracted me to this concept was the idea of being in the kitchen with other people, all contributing to making meals for their families. I know that I've always enjoyed being in the kitchen with others because it makes cooking fun. It's the community focus that really appealed to me."
   In 1999, the timing was right for Conley to put her idea into action. The response to her first session in the church kitchen was overwhelmingly positive. About 10 women gathered to cook under Conley's supervision, doing everything from prepping and cooking the food to labeling and packaging it. They also washed dishes and cleaned the facility.
   Conley soon outgrew this space as the demand for participating in her sessions increased. Friends told friends and family members about the program and it became clear to Conley that she needed to offer more sessions to meet the demand. In August 2000, she moved into her present facility in Kirkland and began increasing the number of sessions per week.
   After Evening Magazine shot a show on her business, enrollment boomed. She now offers four one-day sessions a week, serving approximately nine to 12 people per session. Participants register on-line by first choosing a session date and then receiving confirmation that space is available on that date. Full and split sessions are offered, appealing to different-sized families. A full session runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is designed to accommodate the needs of families of three or more. A split session is geared for families of two and is offered in the mornings or afternoons.
   The next step is to select any combination of 12 items from the menu posted for that month to make 24 meals. A meal is the number of servings it takes to feed your family (a family of four, for example, would need four servings of each meal). Each menu has 12 items ranging from wholesome gourmet to home-style entrees, each with side dishes.
   "I try to make the menus interesting," comments Conley. "I try to make sure I include some kid-friendly entrees, as well as a few items that can possibly stretch people's culinary tastes. I pride myself on being able to meet people's needs and emphasize a broad appeal. I also try to make the menus reflect the seasons. We're coming into the fall season, so I have comfort foods and entrees for entertaining on the menus. In addition, I will do a pie-making class and cookie dough sessions for the holidays."
   A sampling from September's menu included salsa chicken and Spanish rice, barbecue beef brisket with corn bread, Mexican lasagna, mango chicken with coconut pilaf, sesame ginger beef with yakisoba noodles and pasta primavera.
   All meals are priced on a per serving basis with most entrees plus their side dishes ranging from $1.85-$2.85 per serving, including packaging. The average food cost for a family of four (96 servings) ranges between $175-$225 per month depending on the menu. In addition, each participant pays a session fee of $150, which covers the cost of menu planning, purchasing, facility use, instruction and the assistance of a dishwasher.
   A family of four will spend from $325-$375 for twenty-four meals for their family for the month. During a typical session, participants are involved in many different tasks under the supervision of Conley and her assistant, Gary Warstler. While one or two people are cutting and chopping, others might be preparing sauces, grilling meats or packaging the food in containers. "What I offer is not a cooking class," explains Conley, "but I do try to show people various techniques to use in the kitchen and also, I make sure they go away with a good understanding of sanitation methods, which is crucial to food preparation."
   Conley's sessions are full of women, as well as a few men, who return monthly to stock their freezers with healthy, wholesome dinners. She has customers that come from as far south as Olympia and as far north as Mt. Vernon. Her future goal is to open several more kitchens and/or franchise the operation.
   "We will maximize the number of customers we can put through in a few months," says Conley. "Then we need to open a new facility or sell franchises so that others can do it." The company is making a profit and Conley prides herself on never having lost money in a year. She attributes her success to her methodical and conservative business practices, growing as it has made sense and not jumping ahead too quickly. "The reason this concept works," explains Conley, "is that it's affordable, cost effective and saves time, but most of all it helps build community."
   For more information about Month of Meals, access the company's Web site at: www.monthofmeals.com or call (425) 333-4219.