March 12, 2010

Suppers with less stress

— Q: So, just to make sure I'm pronouncing your name correctly

click image to enlarge

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Paula Pelczar owns Make Thyme for Dinner, a business on Western Avenue in South Portland that helps people in assembling meal ingredients, which they then take home. Photographed on Saturday, December 20. 2008.

A The 'c' is silent. So it's 'Pel-zar.'

Q: In another life, you'd be doing?

A: I would be a travel photo-grapher. Otherwise, I think this would be my dream job -- it's just a lot more work than I anticipated it being. It's not as easy as, build-your-own-business and people will be coming through the doors, while you can be working out at the gym or something.

Q: What did you used to do?

A: I've been a sign language interpreter, a lifeguard, a swim coach. Most recently, I was a speech pathologist for 16 years.

Q: And you got into the food business because?

A: Well, I was looking for a change. This particular type of business is really about organization. I'm an organized person, I'd been self-employed for a long time, and I know that being organized reduces stress, including in the kitchen. So this business is more about having an organized kitchen for customers rather than me creating new recipes. Having everything set up, being able to run things smoothly in order to allow people to make meals as efficiently as possible. So we use existing recipes and adapt them. I love to cook, but I don't have formal cooking or chef training. I did have to take safety classes for this business, though, to be certified as knowing how to manage food safely.

Q: What's the most surprising thing you learned?

A: Oh, actually, how it's amazing that we're not all sick all the time! You learn a lot about certain food-borne bacteria. 'Ooh, you can get this, and this.' I thought, 'How do you get to be 41 years old and not have died from something yet?'

You know, everybody's thawed food on the counter all day long, and you're not supposed to do that. It's amazing all the things you need to avoid, but they are easy to manage.

Q: So what does the business do?

A: In the industry we're called a 'meal assembly business.' That means that we prepare the raw ingredients so that our customers can assemble their meals quickly and efficiently. Basically, we try to take the stress out of getting dinner on the table. We have 16 recipes every month, with a salad-bar type setup for each one. Customers pick a minimum of eight recipes they want to make, sign up for a time to come in and go from station to station assembling those meals, which takes an hour to an hour and a half. When they're done, they have dinners packed up to bring home and put in the fridge and cook as they need them.

Q: Where did the idea come from?

A: This is a growing industry around the country. Because I'm kind of a foodie, I watch stuff on the Food Network, and actually saw this concept featured. It's funny, I had tried to get (a business) like this started on a much smaller scale 14 years ago, when (son) Zack was born. So later I saw the other company featured, and started researching, and went out on my own -- I'd decided that I didn't want to be part of a franchise.

Q: Was it an expensive startup?

A: I think it was, but I don't know how it compares to other businesses. It seemed like a lot of money to me. But it was less expensive because we ent independent -- I was probable able to do it for about half as much. The expense was primarily due to our needing a lot of refrigeration, and the electrical work.

Q: What used to be in that space?

A: Triple A. There used to be a huge, gigantic sign you could see from the turnpike.

Q: You should put up a 75-foot sign.

A: Well, the location is fantastic anyway, with parking and easy on and easy off 295. We have people come in from Kennebunk to Augusta. Part of the advantage of the location is that people are already in the area to work, so we're not far out of the way. And a lot of the sessions are at 5 or 5:30, so people come in after work and then head home.

Q: Do you have people working for you?

A: Not counting Zack and (daughter) Ali, who work here occasionally, there are four part-time employees who help with the preparation and setup, or when I'm running sessions. Because as someone is finishing at a station, we're behind them cleaning up so the next person has a clean spot to start, making sure things are running smoothly.

Q: How big is a typical session?

A: It's actually capped at 12, so it can be anywhere from two people to 12. The idea is to keep sessions small and efficient and quick. We also do private groups, with a minimum of eight people. We've had people do baby showers, for example, or come in to make meals on behalf of someone who's sick or when there's a death in a family.

Q: Where do you get the recipes?

A: Anywhere and everywhere. Sometime other independents share and swap recipes. But we test everything, to make sure it can work with our method. Something taken from the South may not translate well.

Q: How much does this cost?

A: It depends on how many meals and the particular package, but it's $3 to $4 per serving, which is cheaper than Lean Cuisine. A recipe might cost $18 but feed six people. Depending on what you add, an entree or salad or rice, you could feed a family of six for between $20 and $25. For example, I just finished bagging a Spanish mixed paella. Other choices were Tuscan beef stew and a spinach, mushroom and artichoke casserole.

Q: What's hard about the business?

A: Well, you're always going to have a difficult customer or something, but that's not that hard, it's just part of the job, part of life. You know, off the top of my head, I can't think of anything hard about it. I'd like to get paid someday, and work fewer hours, but we're doing well and growing and people are still finding us. They come in a good mood and when they leave, they're still in a good mood. You get the occasional person who's grumpy or picky, but overall, we've found a way to make things work, keeping it organized and easy. The hardest part is figuring out creative ways to market this, but then, the customers are our best advertisements. It's nice when people tell you that it's making their day-to-day lives easier.

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