STRONGSVILLE, Ohio – There’s a buzz in the air at My Girlfriend’s Kitchen.
Coworkers, husbands and wives, best friends, sisters and mother-daughter teams pour through the front door into the retro-decorated space. Today’s head girlfriend, Di, greets each of them at the door, and there are waves hello and giggles shared among new and old friends around the room.
Everyone grabs a drink, washes up, slips on an apron and gets to work.
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Dianna Rohr Gravo can’t dispute it: We live in a fast food nation. Moms and Dads and kids whiz past each other every single day, heading to or from work or piano lessons or baseball practice.
With all the demands on time, it’s hard to think about cooking a square meal at the end of the day, even on weekends.
And that’s where Gravo and her friend Arla Foster come in, toting laundry baskets and vinyl aprons and welcoming men and women of all ages to their Strongsville, Ohio, foodie shop.
Here clients book two-hours sessions for measuring and mixing ingredients into zip-top bags and aluminum pans. At home, the premade meals pop into the fridge or freezer to wait for their turn in the oven or frying pan.
It’s good, fast food. And healthy for you, too.
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The women’s franchised business gives nod toward a growing nationwide trend of meal assembly stores. In fact, the Wyoming-based Easy Meal Prep Association says the idea is coming on strong: There are currently 382 individual meal-prep companies registered with the association, representing a slew of more than 1,200 stores nationwide. West Virginia is the only state without a meal-prep store within its borders.
The idea is also catching on in Canada, Australia, France and the United Kingdom.
All fingers point to a huge crowd that longs for home-cooked meals on the table without all the fuss.
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The concept is easy: Gravo, Foster, and their employees, called ‘girlfriends,’ chop and dice veggies and portion meats and pasta for 14 menu items every month.
Clients can choose up to 12 dishes each time they visit. Last month, they had menu picks like a thick-cut steak marinated in garlic, oil, thyme and lemon juice; chicken with a sauce of sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and roasted red peppers over pasta; or slow-cooker stroganoff.
Try it; if you don’t like it for any reason, My Girlfriend’s Kitchen will replace it, Gravo says.
Clients preorder with the girlfriends to be sure there is enough of each ingredient on hand, and book their own two-hour time slot to put the meals together.
Then they show up, layer their ingredients in zippered bags or disposable aluminum pans, sip soft drinks, hang out with friends.
The girlfriends clean up after everyone, bring clean mixing bowls and spatulas to each station, even carry prepared meals from the shop’s refrigerators to clients’ cars.
It’s like mixing a trip to the grocery store, cooking two weeks’ worth of meals, cleaning up and hanging out at a friend’s house, all in one. Not bad for two hours’ work.
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“Moms and dads are running all day and night,” Gravo says.
“[My Girlfriend’s Kitchen] isn’t to replace going out to eat – face it, we all like to go out to eat – it’s to replace fast food and to get families eating together again around the table.”
The concept is also geared toward healthier eating, something that’s important to Gravo. She and her husband, Peter, have three children, and she wants them to grow up with healthy habits. She wants them to grow up differently than she did.
As a teenager and young adult, she didn’t have the best eating habits, she admits. Her choices were her mother’s stick-to-your-ribs dishes, or fast food. She overindulged in both, leading her to a gastric bypass just two years ago.
The surgery was a wake-up call. “I needed to learn to eat healthy, and to cook healthy,” Gravo says.
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Until the fall of 2006, Gravo was a full-time farmer. In partnership with her father, Lauren, since she was 18, she tilled and planted and harvested 1,600 acres of crops in Stark County’s Jackson Township.
She had ‘her’ tractor and ‘her’ combine and all the headaches that went along with farming full-time, raising three active children and keeping a household.
And then she decided it was time to go another direction.
“I needed to cut back on the 90-hour weeks. I wanted a more steady schedule,” she says.
Her first idea was to add a side business to the farm. Then she considered a high-class spa. But the deal sealed itself when she and Arla Foster, a friend she’d made through their daughters’ cheerleading squad, visited the My Girlfriend’s Kitchen shop in nearby North Canton.
“We walked out the door and it was like ‘ding’!” Gravo reflects. Their startup soon followed.
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That farm background pulls Gravo’s decisions. She wants to give her customers the best possible mental image of farmers and the products they produce.
And to do that, she loses profit sometimes. As a mom, a woman, and a farm girl, she’s finicky when it comes to food.
“You just can’t come from a farm and serve bad meat,” she says. She pumps the freshest and highest quality steaks and pork chops and chicken she can into each dish , even if it means coming out only pennies ahead.
“You have to serve the absolute best quality [foods] if you expect the customers to come back.”
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Lauren Rohr was iffy about his daughter’s plan, she recalls, but he supported her decision. The two had farmed together since she was 5 years old; watching her pull away brought out his true feelings.
“He’s a guy and a farmer; he thought it was a stupid idea.”
She’s proven Dad wrong. He’s been there four or five times already and is a fan of the pork chop recipes, she says.
Even good cooks like the idea.
“Here they can make things they wouldn’t make at home. And I’ve heard they can really appreciate the quality of our ingredients.”
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Today the Gravo household feasts on Girlfriend dishes, taste-testing and poking around flavors Dianna admits she would have never mixed before.
It’s introducing the whole family to new combinations, like cranberries in raspberry vinaigrette with spicy chipotle paste, and getting them to try new foods.
And her household is no different than any other she serves, Gravo says.
“You will never try a certain recipe because it calls for an ingredient or spice you don’t have. And why pay so much for something if you don’t even know you’ll like it?” Gravo says.
Every month, as the menu changes, her family and her customers try something new. And every month they add a new favorite to their list.
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“A lot of women feel guilty about not cooking,” Gravo says. She knows. She speaks from experience.
But the meal prep concept works as well for her as it does for her customers.
“We’re saving time and still cooking. I look at it that by doing this, I’m making more time to spend with my family,” she says.
“And sitting around the table with my kids … I get more out of that at home than I do in a restaurant,” she says.
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Giggles echo through the shop and women and men chat as they move through the stations. One couple discusses leaving out an ingredient; two friends double up and make two dishes at each station to help one another.
Customers and girlfriends help each other figure out which spice is which and just what the heck that sauce is, and the refrigerator fills quickly.
Each customer’s pile of meals proves it: You don’t have to slave for hours to be a cook.
They grab their meals from the refrigerator, load the laundry baskets and head out the door.
They’re ready for a tasty dinner at home.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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