LITHIA — Lydia Lemon was checking out her second meal-assembly store in a month.
"This one helps me put the ingredients together faster. Their stainless steel bowls make it easier to fill Ziploc bags," she said. "At $3.75 a meal, it's cheaper than a Happy Meal."
Lemon and five of her pals from Apollo Beach were among the prospects invited to staff practice at Apron's Make-Ahead Meals, Publix Super Markets' first foray into the easy prep meal business.
A lot of eyes are focused on the Lakeland-based chain's first stand-alone store that opens Thursday at FishHawk Crossing shopping center. It's part two of a test that began last October with a meal-assembly shop in a Jacksonville supermarket.
"Publix will help define an industry still trying to figure itself out," said Gary Karp, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago research firm. A few grocers have similar experiments: a pair of South Carolina Piggly Wigglys and local chains in St. Louis and Philadelphia.
The bigger picture: Publix is among the few megachains trying to teach shoppers to make food from ingredients — the products that fill the middle of their stores. They're challenged by a public that doesn't cook.
The platform is Publix Apron's, a program of cooking classes, celebrity chef appearances and kiosks that peddle samples and package easy-to-make entrees.
The store is a slick, pro-kitchen version of the no-shopping, no-chopping, no-cleanup, no-meal-planning way of feeding families from scratch that emerged as a foodie fad in 2003. By last year that initial meal-prep movement lost much of its steam after 260 stores closed nationally, including eight of the 21 in the Tampa Bay area. That left 1,153 stores with $370-million in sales in 2008 that are forecast to hit $650-million in 2010.
Most fans are stay-at-home moms or time-pressed career women. They save time, energy and money by buying enough premeasured food to put together a month's worth of dinners in two hours at a meal-prep store. Before filling a freezer, they enjoy a social event complete with wine samples.
Publix brings higher standards, brand recognition and sharper pricing to an industry dominated by independents that deliver an uneven experience. Publix uses fresh, never-frozen food, hires people with culinary degrees and rotates 14 recipes monthly from a list of 140.
"Top sellers are comfort foods with a twist: chicken marsala, Italian spice meat loaf and cranberry almond chicken," said Bill Donnelly, Publix corporate chef.
Publix lays out the makings. Customers bag. Or the staff does it for a fee. A Publix supermarket in the same center stocks the "take-and-bake meals."
Experts think Publix will learn how to grapple with changing trends. For instance, three years ago 90 percent of meal-prep fans assembled ingredients themselves. Today half do. The rest pay for the convenience of a finished product.