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Publix spices up recipe with Lithia meal-preparation store

Clerk Tori Gittere, right, and sous chef Mike McClure of Publix Apron’s Make-Ahead Meals prepare before customers arrive.

GEN YAMAGUCHI | Times

Clerk Tori Gittere, right, and sous chef Mike McClure of Publix Apron’s Make-Ahead Meals prepare before customers arrive.

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.

What is Apron's?

Apron's Make-Ahead Meals is a Publix meal-prep business. The first stand-alone store opens Thursday in Lithia at the FishHawk Crossing shopping center.

At Apron's, customers can assemble meals using Publix ingredients and recipes. For those pressed for time, Publix also offers "take-and-bake meals." Apron's also offers cooking classes, featuring celebrity chef appearances.

Publix spices up recipe with Lithia meal-preparation store 09/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 4:58pm]

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