SPRING HILL — For any amateur cook who relishes the craft, who yearns to get into a restaurant kitchen, dip into already chopped and prepared ingredients, concoct a meal, and not have to clean up later, Let's Eat in Silverthorn Square awaits.
Former teachers Norma Foote and Cheryl Whittaker of Spring Hill launched the local franchise of the Tampa-based national chain in December. Too tired by the time they got home from work to whip up fresh and nutritious dinners for their families, they figured many other working parents shared their situation.
The sign out front has led to some confusion among passers-by, who assumed the venue is a traditional restaurant. It's more hands-on than that.
It's make-your-own-meal, take it home and cook it or freeze it, without the wait for a restaurant table and with the confidence that the order is exactly what you wanted. If the dish calls for cilantro, for instance, and the would-be chef doesn't like the herb, just skip it. It's your choice.
From the shiny stainless steel, spick-and-span working stations in the spacious kitchen, customers peruse menus, parcel out their ingredients, sprinkle in spices and herbs neatly aligned and labeled on the top counter, and mix and ladle their results into take-home aluminum foil cooking pans or seal-lock plastic bags.
Customers are issued aprons and plastic food-handler gloves. A customer service assistant peeks over the shoulder of a novice cook, ready to answer questions or assist if necessary.
As for the herbs and spices, Foote said, "Some people buy a bottle for one recipe and never buy it again."
She pointed to turmeric and chili powder. They're freshly available for the single sprinkle or two at Let's Eat.
When a customer concocts a meal, it is quickly plunked onto his or her designated refrigerator shelf while the preparer moves on to another menu station. Food safety is a top priority.
On a recent Tuesday — dubbed Take 2 Tuesday — Robert Kowal, 70, readily put together two pans of sierra chicken, boneless chicken breasts lathered in barbecue sauce, smothered with Colby Jack cheese, drizzled with honey mustard.
"He's a natural. He's good," said customer service representative Robert Wood.
Kowal, a business broker whose wife works at Wal-Mart, hates eating out. "Most restaurants are mediocre anyhow, unless they're very expensive,'' he said.
Instead, he's prepared many meals at Let's Eat outlets around the Tampa Bay area.
Kowal likes the Tuesday specials: no reservations necessary, just drop in and put together two meals of three to four servings each in 30 to 40 minutes.
Mostly, he makes the chicken dishes. "We don't want any blood pressure problems," he said. Kowal moved on to the arroz con pollo station, chicken with a marinade rub, rice, peas, black beans, herbs and olive oil.
Co-owner Foote echoed her customer's preference for putting together a meal at Let's Eat. "It's healthier," she said.
Added Whittaker, "It's more cost-effective. They're getting home-cooked meals. They don't have all that prep time and cleaning up."
Customers can sign up for a one- to seven-meal, eight-meal or 12-meal package, each serving four to six. Prices range from $22 to $17 per meal, depending on the quantity. The entrepreneurs calculate that the price per serving ranges from $3.66 to $2.83.
But a customer doesn't have to prepare the meal. A customer who arrived in a wheelchair sipped a complimentary coffee while she watched her order being put together by staff. Afternoon customers are offered iced tea.
For a party of eight or more wanna-be chefs, Let's Eat will shut the doors and tend to the party's wishes, providing wine and hors d'oeuvres as well.
Wednesdays are dubbed Grab and Go. "Stop by our store or call ahead to see which meals we have assembled," reads its advertisement. "Dinner will be waiting in our refrigerator for you to pick up!"
Menus, 14 entrees each, are issued monthly from corporate headquarters in Tampa. They have been taste-tested, Whittaker said.
In addition to the chicken entrees that Kowal pursued, March offered such dishes as Southwestern beef enchiladas, grilled sesame steak, Santa Fe bean burgers, mussels puttanesca and blackened mahi with black bean salsa.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. for walk-ins Monday and Tuesday; preparation sessions by reservation at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; and 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday.
Upcoming sessions for Kids in the Kitchen are 10 a.m. April 9 and 1 p.m. April 11.
"They'll make cookies, help parents assemble meals, tour the kitchen and get a chef's cap," Foote said.
The venue's challenge, she added, "is getting people to understand the concept. It's getting the word out about what we do."
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.