the gourmet life

Dishing Up Your Family's Meals
Story by Tori Phelps
Photography by CIBP Staff

Maybe this sounds familiar: it’s the end of a long day, you’re tired, and you have no idea what to fix for dinner.  If the only thing you seem to make lately is reservations, it might be time to investigate Dish Kitchen in Bloomington.

Dish Kitchen, owned by lifelong Bloomington residents Barb and Jeff Brumleve, is a year-old company on the cutting edge of a new culinary trend: meal-prep businesses. In exchange for less than two hours of your time, you’ll have a month’s worth of meals ready to take home. Or even better—they’ll assemble everything for you.

According to Barb, it’s a simple concept that can be difficult to explain. “Every month, customers check out our web site at www.dishkitchen.com to see what’s on the menu. The menu changes each month, and 14 new dishes are offered. We always have an appetizer, a brunch item, a dessert, and the rest are main dishes. Customers then decide if they want to have a private party or sign up for a regular session. They pick a date and time and sign up to make anywhere from six to 12 dishes. When they arrive for their ‘dish date,’ our staff already has been busy prepping everything to make their dishes. All of the onions are chopped, all of the pasta is cooked, all of the herbs are minced, etc. The customer just moves from station to station, following a recipe, and assembling their dishes.”

She said customers always comment that having Dish staff clean up after them is a favorite aspect of the process. “There’s no shopping, chopping, or mopping for our customers; we make it as easy and fun as possible. We always have an appetizer to nibble on at the bar and customers are welcome to bring in a beverage of their choice—often sipping wine as they mark off the dishes they’ve just put together. So, in less than two hours, you leave with up to 12 dishes ready to put in your freezer—or a couple in the fridge—and pull out as you need them. Each dish comes with instructions on how to make it once you get home and includes serving suggestions. We also offer to make the dishes for you, so for an additional fee, you can just stop by after work and pick up your dinners.”

Passionate about cooking from a young age, Barb said after receiving a Bachelors degree in health education from Eastern Illinois University, she always planned to got to culinary school. But the dream of becoming a chef was inconsistent with the reality of a chef’s lifestyle and how that would affect having a family with her husband, a tennis pro at Evergreen Racquet Club. They decided on a compromise of sorts: Dish Kitchen and three children. “Dish was created from a combination of my love for food and my love for my family. When this all came about, I had two young children. I’ve always loved to cook, but I was finding it a bit more challenging—actually, a lot more challenging. So, when I heard about this concept, I fell in love with the idea and felt I just had to do it. I couldn’t wait to make dinnertime easier and healthier and be able to use my creativity to come up with all of the dishes.”

Her husband was on board from the beginning. “We’ve both always wanted to own our own business, and it seemed the time was right for this type of business in our community,” she said. “I kept going back and forth with the idea and worked on it for about two years before I finally talked myself into it. We opened in October 2005 and since have added a third child to our family, so I guess it was meant to be. I don’t even want to think what it would be like with three young children and no Dish.”

She opted to open her own business rather than a franchise mostly because she wanted to put her personal stamp on the company. “I love the fact that we can be anything the customer wants us to be. I felt a franchise would be too constricting, and I wouldn’t be able to do the things I love: come up with recipes, control the quality of our food, etc.”

With her husband handling the “business side,” Barb and her nine employees are free to handle the creative end. “Our employees have been wonderful; they’re all such hard workers, and the customers love them. You wouldn’t believe the amount of prep work that’s done for a session—the last thing our employees want to see after they leave Dish is another chicken breast they need to trim (we’re talking trimming 100-plus chicken breasts for one day) or another dish that needs to be cleaned. I usually work our private parties, which are Tuesdays and Fridays. When I’m not doing that, I’m busy putting together the next month’s menu and running to the store for items we can’t get from our supplier—which definitely takes up more time than you’d expect.”

One of the best things about Dish is that it works for everyone. As Barb pointed out, “We all have to eat, right? But our target audience is busy people trying to sit down and have some quality time at the dinner table. And people use Dish to make food for others. We have groups that prepare food for expecting moms, new moms, and friends or family recovering from illness. We’ve even had themed private parties: baby showers, bridal showers, and team-building work groups. Private parties definitely have been popular at Dish. Friends love to get together, chat, and ‘cook.’”

She said a loyal customer base and positive word of mouth, rather than advertising, has built the Dish business over the past year. “Our customers love the fact that they don’t have to spend hours at the grocery store; they just come in once a month and leave with delicious dishes ready to serve. I get a lot of requests for our recipes; people really like our food.”

Barb said the most difficult aspect of her business is explaining it to someone who’s never heard of the concept. “Because it’s so new, educating people about it takes some time.”

Fortunately, attention from the national media—Food Network and People magazine, for example—has brought this new niche business some well-deserved publicity. “I’ve had transplants from California and Texas walk through our doors, and they were thrilled that there was a meal-prep business in town because that had become a way of life for them,” she said.

Barb said seeing Dish Kitchen get off the ground and prosper so quickly has been gratifying. “I was so scared to actually do it, but I had gotten to the point that if I didn’t do it, I would’ve always wondered ‘what if.’ It’s such a reward when customers thank me for making their life easier. It’s great to be a part of something that’s so much fun and productive. As one of our customers put it, Dish is one of the best guilt-free pleasures they have.” a&s

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