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February 22-March 1, 2006

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The Fresh Princess

Jody Lombardo makes the previously problematic art of meal assembly easy at Fresh Prep Kitchens

By Steve Billings


Sometimes concise language doesn't support exactly what we want to say about ourselves, our experiences or our dreams. In the age of branding, however, this is rarely true of our businesses. Yet after three years of operation and a recent move to a prominent downtown storefront, a shorthand description of what she does continues to be Jody Lombardo's perplexing little albatross. Lombardo is owner of Fresh Prep Kitchens, which, to the uninitiated, remains Front Street's resident enigma.

A stroll by the storefront raises more questions. You know it's a food-based business, of what type you're not sure. There's a warm, California-kitchen feel to the retail space visible from the street, and a large open kitchen area stretching to the distant back wall. Are Food Network programs filmed here? Is this a test kitchen for a culinary magazine? Should you call them to cater your party, sign up for a cooking class or gather your foodie friends and throw a party in there?

Mysteries aside, the primary service Fresh Prep offers is "meal assembly," a relatively new phenomenon and a fast-growing segment of an ever-expanding convenience food industry servicing the time-deficient among us.

Participants choose a kitchen session date, select choices from the monthly menu of dinners and pick the appropriate meal plan according to their needs. When you arrive for your scheduled time, you are greeted, oriented to the kitchen and set to work through each fully prepped station assembling and packaging your meals to take away. Portion packaging and recipe tweaks are allowed based upon your personal tastes, and there is no "cooking" until you get home. In approximately two hours you could have (depending on the plan chosen) 12 family-portioned entrees.

Lombardo, formerly a 15-year employee of Raytek and one-time owner of her own cookie business, discovered the still-nascent meal assembly idea while researching potential employment as a personal chef. She uncovered two Washington state businesses (Dream Dinners and Cuizam) executing the concept in very different ways. Cuizam followed a more time-intensive co-op format, whereas Dream Dinners focused on convenience and individual needs.

"I thought it [Cuizam] was a really good idea but I didn't think it was going to work for Santa Cruz. It rains almost nine months a year up there, and no one is going to spend eight hours here on a Saturday in the kitchen making meals. Another thing I didn't like about the model was that participants collectively took meals home, but it wasn't necessarily the meals that they [individually] put together. So it could have been someone else on the assembly line, assembling meals, and you would get just one of whatever."

When she opened in a small West Side kitchen in June 2003 she was the only such business in California. Now Dream Dinners has expanded with franchises in 107 locations. Meal assembly centers number 625 outlets operated by 239 companies.

The meal assembly concept is distinctly American in its genius. It serves our fanatical devotion to convenience and our love of a good deal as well as re-emerging desires to connect with where our food comes from and serving our family healthy, flavorful meals sourced from quality ingredients. And though Fresh Prep does not adhere to any specific nutritional ideology or dietary requirements, Lombardo believes that "we have a broad variety [of options] and what we feel is a balanced menu of meat, poultry, seafood and vegetarian. Even though we offer some 'comfort foods' they are not as rich or as full of fat [as prepared foods]. It is good fresh food that incorporates organic produce, and it's a fresh approach."

Lombardo is emphatic that in a world dependent on, yet seemingly devoid of, service, a high level of customer care sets Fresh Prep apart from the franchises. "We know our clients. We have relationships with them. We know about their families, their kids. We are there for them and care about them genuinely. And we're here to help people have a healthy way to eat dinner and be with their family, spend more time with them and get back to the table."



Fresh Prep Kitchens

Address: 504 A Front St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.429.1390


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