When sisters Kim and Robyn Bailey first began developing a business plan for the Make & Take Kitchen in 2004, they felt pressured to hurry up and open the meal assembly store.

When sisters Kim and Robyn Bailey first began developing a business plan for the Make & Take Kitchen in 2004, they felt pressured to hurry up and open the meal assembly store.
  
“We scrambled to open as quickly as we did because we thought for sure people were right behind us and we wanted to be the first,” Robyn said.
  
They had good reason for concern. Meal assembly franchises were spreading through suburban strip malls nationwide. Rumors abounded about prospective franchises setting up shop in their region.
 
The Baileys opened the Make & Take Kitchen in Norwell, Mass., in 2005. But it wasn't until last November - two years later - that other meal assembly businesses entered the region.
 
Kay Conley founded the first meal assembly business in 1999 when she opened Month of Meals in a Seattle suburb. She set recipes, bought and prepared all the ingredients. The customers ordered meals online and scheduled a time to come in and assemble them. The meals were then frozen and cooked when needed.
  
A former food broker, Conley said her business was inspired by a trend - popularized by cookbooks and spreading at the time through church-centered communities - to prepare and freeze a month's worth of meals in a sitting, thus freeing up time during the week.
  
The concept quickly caught on as others, including current industry leaders Snohomish, Wash.-based Dream Dinners and Fort Worth, Texas-based Super Suppers, began franchising.

The number of meal prep shops grew from four at the end of 2002 to 173 at the end of 2004 and 561 at the end of 2005. As of April, there were nearly 1,300 meal assembly kitchens nationwide.
  
The launch of the meal assembly industry coincided with the peak of the dot-com boom, when young families were busier and had more disposable income than ever.

That timing played a significant role in what Bert Vermeulen calls “mommy guilt.” The president of Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Easy Meal Prep Co. says that guilt catalyzed demand for the service.
  
“(Working mothers) discover they want their kids to have the same childhood experience they had growing up,” said Vermeulen, whose company provides resources and information to the meal prep industry. “But they don't have the time to do that.”
  
By allowing customers to prepare a week's worth of meals in the time it takes to watch an episode of “Law & Order,” Vermeulen said, meal prep kitchens let working mothers save time while preparing meals for their family, while making it a social event by inviting friends to prep alongside them.
  
But if a lack of time helped fuel the industry's climb, it has also significantly altered its trajectory.
  
Initially, each meal assembly session at Month of Meals would last six to eight hours, Conley said. Soon competition forced her to cut prep times to roughly two hours for 12 meals - the current industry standard.
  
In 2004, Month of Meals took the customers out of the kitchen altogether and began doing all the prep work for them. Much of the industry has slowly and incrementally followed suit, offering to assemble meals for customers and adding pre-assembled meals in freezers for carry-out.

Conley and Vermeulen agree the industry is shifting from customer assembly, but Conley said the original model will likely still thrive at some stores.
 
“People nowadays are just so busy, it's like they don't even have time to think about placing an order,” said Kim Bailey, whose Make & Take Kitchen has added a “ready-to-go” freezer to accommodate demand.
  
Bailey said the Make & Take Kitchen still does about 80 percent of its business through customers assembling their own meals. But as other meal assembly businesses have popped up, each has had to deal with consumer impatience with the assembly process.
  
Sue Turley, who opened an Entrée Vous franchise in Duxbury, Mass., in November, said that in a matter of months, what was supposed to be a customer-assembly business has already evolved into one that is almost entirely pickup based.
   
Turley said only about 10 percent of her customers assemble the meals themselves through booking private assembly parties. The rest of her sales are pickups. 
  
“It has become almost exclusively a retail business, and that's fine with me,” Turley said. “It's more efficient.”
 
Dawn Krish, a former customer of the Make & Take Kitchen who opened her own Make & Take shop in Halifax, Mass., in November, said her customers are still interested in the social benefits of assembling with friends.

Part of that comes from the culture the Baileys are working to develop with their Make & Takes. They said they expect their kitchen's function as a social hub to keep the original model alive.
  
“Everyone talks about everything from what are the big shows on TV to how the kids are doing in school,” Kim Bailey said. “It's like a little family.”
  
A.J. Bauer may be reached at ajbauer@ledger.com.