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Dream Dinners is to cooking as:
a) Tom Cruise is to Godliness.
b) "Burgundy cooking wine" is to French premier cru.
3439 N. Hiatus Road
Sunrise, FL 33351
c) Abu Ghraib is to romance.
d) All of the above.
You don't go to Dream Dinners, the newly opened franchise in Sunrise, to learn anything about the culinary arts. Yes, you're going to be making "dinner," but that's like saying your tot at her coloring book is making "art." You're going to be cooking inside the lines. You go to Dream Dinners to throw together 12 meals in record time. You do it because you're a stressed-out working mother of four or a clueless single on a budget or an aging granny with limited mobility for grocery shopping and meal planning. You go because you figure if you can prepare a freezer full of ready-to-go meals in two hours, you are so far ahead of the game that you hardly know what you'll do with the extra 24-plus hours of leisure time you've just earned (Learn Italian! Take up sky-diving!). You go because you've ordered from every fast-food counter in a 40-mile radius, and if you have to eat one more Happy Meal, you're going to throw yourself under a passing Tri-Rail.
Invented by a 40-ish caterer from Seattle named Stephanie Allen, the Dream Dinners concept is relatively simple. In sum: You pay $200 and choose 12 meals from a menu on their website, or six meals if you're doing the short version (which costs $120). Each of these meals will feed four to six people, so you're figuring about $4 per serving. You're going to put these meals together at the store, cart them home and toss them in the freezer, and then pop them in the oven whenever.
I chose the six-meal plan and immediately degenerated into the customer from hell. Not only could I not work the website properly (totally my fault) but I got lost twice on my way to the store, necessitating frantic phone calls. And when I arrived a half-hour late for the 3 p.m. session, I'd forgotten to bring my cooler. But Sally Grant and Nicole Marefka, bubbly women in their 30s who own the franchise, greeted me with such enthusiasm that I felt like I'd just scaled the Matterhorn. As it happened, a reporter from Newsweek and her photo crew were there too ("That's right, a little closer together please... lift that measuring cup just a fraction... perfect!"), but Grant and Marefka were as cool as pre-diced cucumbers. They dressed me in an apron and surgical gloves, handed me a printout of my order, and showed me how to label the freezer bags and pans with cooking instructions. Then I shoved off to my first station, my maiden voyage.
If you're preparing, say, Dream Dinners' "signature dish," chicken Mirabella, or beef sirloin with mushroom sauce, you read from a printed recipe at each station and spoon the listed ingredients into a plastic bag with your meat. The Dream Dinners operation is as sterile as a quarantine lab. You wear gloves. You wash your hands between entrées. Everything is prepped and laid out for you, and those prep containers are at subzero temps. Each bottle of dehydrated onions or concentrated beef flavoring or low-fat sour cream already contains the appropriately sized measuring spoon or cup. Vials of ingredients are labeled in big, bold letters. To fuck this up, you'd have to be either a complete moron or stoned out of your gills.
I thought about this while I missed the half-bottle of wine I usually consume when I'm cooking a meal at home. I thought about the smell of onions sautéing and the pleasures of chopping up a perfect aromatic brunoise, and I missed that too. But honestly, at Dream Dinners, even if you do screw up, it's not going to be such a big deal. If you forget to add the two tablespoons of bottled garlic or you pour too much fat-free Italian dressing into your Ziploc freezer bag, your kids are still going to swill it all down when it comes out of the oven, and hubby will be so thrilled about the reprieve from Hamburger Helper that he won't dare whine about the missing parsley flakes. And you, no doubt, are going to experience that exhilarating sense of freedom and accomplishment that comes from having a "home-cooked" meal (as the delicious scent of bubbling reconstituted mushroom soup mix emanates from the kitchen) without having had to wash one single blasted measuring cup, mop up spilled flour, or scour the burnt crust from the bottom of a pan. You will be, my dear, a truly liberated woman.
Grant and Marefka put around $70,000 into opening the Sunrise franchise. And they got in "on the ground floor," Grant says to open a franchise today, you'll need twice that, and you'll pay 8 percent of your gross to the mother ship. Grant happened to be leafing through a copy of Working Mother at the doctor's office one afternoon when she stumbled across an article about the founders of the original store in Seattle, Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna. "They weren't even doing franchises at the time," Grant remembers, "but I kept an eye on the company because I thought it was interesting." It took two years to get their franchise in Sunrise open, and even that was delayed by Hurricane Wilma. Now Grant says she's working 12-hour to 15-hour days to get the franchise off the ground. Marefka has kept her full-time job with Wildcard Systems in Sunrise and handles most of Dream Dinners' paperwork and accounting.