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Businesses capitalize on fast, fresh food trend

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Less than a year after opening her business, Katie Baker has honed in on her ideal client. She said it’s younger parents, generally between 28 and 40 years old.

“They just need to get food on the table before the kids go to sleep,” she said.

Some don’t consider themselves great cooks and many are navigating a family member’s food allergy or diet restriction. They want their family to be healthy, but the clock is always ticking.

“They find themselves stopping at Wendy’s or Sonic,” she said.

That’s where The Gracious Plate steps in. Baker develops specialized menus to meet her clients’ dietary needs and goals. She shops for ingredients from local farmers, then cooks and delivers the ready-to-eat meals.

Her business model is riding a trend centered on convenience. It’s king with consumers across industries, and the dinner plate is no exception.

A study released this month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds more than a third of Americans eat fast food on any given day. That number goes up with income. Forty-two percent of people with a household income 350 percent above the federal poverty level, or $112,950 for a family of four, are dining daily on fast food.

But just as convenience eating grows in popularity, so do diet-related illnesses. Diabetes affects one out of every 10 Americans, and heart disease is cited as the cause of one out of every four deaths, according to the CDC, which classifies fast food as a “poor diet” with too many calories.

The facts are leading consumers to locate the balance between fast and fresh.

Denise LeBolt founded Homemade. Delivered. LLC, a locally made, ready-to-eat meal service designed to bridge convenience to health.

“As people get busier, I really think that the main thing is they want to save time, they want to eat healthy and they want to sit at the dinner table together,” LeBolt said. “Whether it be losing weight or just trying to eat healthy, they want to get good food in their body.”

She prepares food out of her East Cherry Street commercial kitchen for about 200 families each week. On Tuesdays, she releases a weekly menu of salads, soups, entrees and juices.

“I have a couple of doctors that just order for one day, the day that they are on call,” she said. “Other people who are busy and have kids, they order for the whole week.

“Everything that we make is ready to go in the oven.”

Starting her business in 2012, somewhat ahead of the healthy convenience food curve, LeBolt expects 2018 revenue of $220,000. Menu items range from $8 for a pint of egg salad to $12 per entree of chicken enchiladas.

Prepared meals and meal kits delivered to the door, like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, are a growing trend.

The $2.2 billion meal kit industry is expected to grow by 25 to 30 percent over the next decade, according to Chicago-based food industry consulting firm Pentallect.

“People tend to have busy lives, more people work outside of the home and, bottom line, people don’t know how to cook,” said Natalie Allen, a clinical instructor in the biomedical sciences department at Missouri State University. “If we can help people plan and choose healthier meals that are ready more quickly, that’s a bigger benefit for everyone.”

She said ready-to-eat meals and meal kits can provide families more time to eat together.

“Several studies show children who eat dinner with their family are less likely to do drugs and stay in school,” she said.

In addition to convenience, a study by food industry analysts Acosta and Technomic Inc. said diners crave same-day food options; 85 percent of people decide what to eat for dinner the same day the meal occurs.

Those impulse decisions are helping guide retail and grocery store offerings.

“We try to respond really well to what customers are telling us,” said Amber Wilkerson, marketing director for MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market LLC. “Convenience foods are definitely big.”

MaMa Jean’s a year ago began offering ready-to-eat frozen meals dubbed MaMa’s Oven Shove’ns at its three Springfield stores. In July 2016, Wilkerson said the retailer opened MJ’s Market and Deli on East Battlefield Road, doubling its commercial kitchen and increasing its grab-and-go deli options.

She said the natural foods grocer focuses on “clean eating” and also offers meals for those following the ketogenic, plant-based and Whole 30 diets.

“It’s all about giving people choices,” she said.

Another option for healthy convenience eating has been available in the Springfield market for two years. Omaha-Nebraska based Eat Fit Go Healthy Foods LLC was founded in 2015, and David Baumann opened the Springfield franchise a year later.

“Healthy eating has really been difficult for a lot of people,” said operations manager  at Eat Fit Go Graham Smitham, “whether it’s going to the grocery store to cook and meal prep at home or going to a restaurant and trying to figure out what is good to eat on a menu.”

Smitham described Eat Fit Go as “healthy fast food.”

Entrees are prepared at a centralized kitchen in Omaha and delivered daily to the Springfield store on East Sunshine Street. The food is minimally processed and prepared without butter or oils, Smitham said.

Breakfast and snack items start at $5 and the most expensive entree is $12.50.

He said the first year in business recorded $800,000 in sales, and through three quarters this year, sales have reached $550,000.

Smitham said he anticipates sales growth as Eat Fit Go has added satellite pickup locations this year at gyms in Republic, Ozark, south Springfield and Branson. He also started a partnership with CoxHealth to provide the meal option for employees.

Baker, an Ozarks Technical Community College culinary graduate, has plans to grow her Gracious Plate business to six clients by the end of the year.

The personalized menu creation costs more than other ready-to-eat options – one menu example with nine meals comes in at $235 – but she said that’s because she can tailor the menus.

“My goal is really combining the chef aspect of the taste with convenience,” she said, “but then also having the nutrition and the personalized services.”

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