Dream Dinners can be a lifeline for busy parents and folks who want an easy dinner. In normal times, customers show up, prep a whole bunch of meals for the next few weeks and take them home. Of course, standing in a dinner-prep assembly line during a pandemic is not the safest way to take dinner stress out of one’s life.

Instead of powering through and hoping for the best, the 70 Dream Dinners kitchens across the country took a close look at what it had: ingredient logistics, great-tasting food, ample prep space and homebound customers.

“March hit and we had to really quickly pivot and reevaluate our business model and meet the demand of what consumers were needing,” said Founder and CEO Tina Kuna. “We’re an in-store session where customer come in to assemble their meals. In March we had to go to 100 percent curbside, and thinking about going into delivery. All of those things had to go much quicker.”

Like a lot of the foodservice trends, the acceleration to no- or low-contact meant Kuna and her team had to go from the white board idea of far-flung meal kit delivery to fast execution. The nuts and bolts were there, but flipping the switch and entering the realm of Blue Apron and other major, national delivered meal services was not simple.

To spur the new model along, she said the company targeted its former customers. The franchised company had slowed down in recent years and, at 18 years old, some franchisees were retiring and closing their locations. All their former customers became fertile ground for the new meals-by-mail program.

“Originally, we’ve tested a program under an arm of Dream Dinners as a separate entity, but we realized we had to bring that under Dream Dinners and market to customers where we used to have stores,” said Kuna. “To offer meals to customers that missed us.”

Ultimately, it made sense to do all the mail orders out of a corporate location, where they could set up a process with all the necessary packaging, cooling devices and the special set of meals that freeze well for extended travel. Given that it was a new channel, ensuring the process was airtight

“It’s complicated because we have brick-and-mortar that we’re able to utilize and ship out product to customers,” said Kuna. “It was really analyzing how to get it to them safest and quickest.”

The local Dream Dinners stores are also doing delivery to nearby customers. By May, one-third of the company orders were going out in delivery as either frozen meals or local deliveries. That, however, was easy to figure out with local couriers and no need for complex temperature control. The rest is all curbside.

Testing Dream Dinners

Food On Demand had a chance to test out a few of the meals by mail. In all, they were tasty, and the prep was much easier than a meal kit—these were fully prepped and all the end customer has to do is toss things together. For instance, putting the crispy crust on a chicken finger and then cooking. The Yakisoba noodle bowl and barbecue-chips chicken fingers were especially tasty—and family friendly.

Good food, however, should be table stakes even though a lot of other meal kit providers skew toward the bland. Given how weird food can get traveling by mail, packaging and temperature was a key part of the test. As Food On Demand has covered in the past, food by mail can get nasty on a good day, and all the carriers slammed by a pandemic surge in usage, getting some raw chicken by mail was more than a little unnerving!

We experienced some mail oddities, as the initial order was delayed. The food never left the building—so there was no fear of those chicken fingers growing bacteria in a hot mailroom.

Once the shipping issue was figured out, the box arrived in excellent condition with Russian-doll-like layers of temperature protection. Inside a cardboard box was a Styrofoam cooler and inside that was a heat-resistant bag. Inside that were the individually bagged meals and a useful little temperature gauge that measured how long the meals were in the food safety danger zone.

As seen to the right, if all the dots are white, the food stayed frozen.

Moving to the big waste question inherent in meal deliveries, there’s almost no avoiding layers of plastic and Styrofoam. One perk to having everything pre-made—unlike other meal kits—was that there were fewer little plastic bags for each individual ingredient.

In all, it was a good approach to meal delivery, with better food and slightly less waste than other offerings—and no chopping required!