Catering: Busy Professionals Pay a Price for Dining In
For today’s busy couples and families the thought of coming home to a healthy meal is a lot more enticing than reheating yesterday’s pizza or microwaving a frozen dish.
Some 100,000 Americans have already turned to home meal replacement by hiring personal chefs who offer an all-around solution: meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and clean-up.
And their numbers are growing, said David McKay, founder of the United States Personal Chef Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Currently there are 3,200 personal chefs nationwide in an industry that generates some $120 million annually, McKay said.
“If we keep the current growth, we’ll see 6,000 chefs by 2002,” he said.
Enterprise Magazine agreed, ranking personal chefs as second among its 1999 “hottest” list of upcoming industries.
The new economy is having an effect on home economics, according to marketing experts. Increasingly, Americans are outsourcing traditional homemaking functions, such as grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning, so they can focus on activities that add value to their lives, such as quality time with family.
“There are a lot of working moms and dads who want to eat healthy, but have time constraints,” McKay said. “If a chef can provide healthy food for the same money they would spend in a restaurant, it becomes affordable.”
For Kenneth Hirsch, a San Diego psychiatrist, and his wife, also a psychiatrist, having a ready-made dinner available after a busy day is a convenience they wouldn’t want to miss any longer.
Hirsch still recalls the first time Jessica Leibovich, founder of Entr & #233;e Nous Personal Chef Services in Point Loma, visited his Scripps Ranch home to whip up six entrees from a list of about 40 menus.
“It was wonderful coming home to the wonderful smells that permeated the house,” Hirsch said.
That was the aroma of a culinary mix of Chesapeake Bay crab cakes with rice pilaf and a tomato remoulade sauce, pork chops stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and fresh herbs, seafood casserole au gratin, and Jamaican jerk chicken, among others.
Leibovich said she spends about four hours at a client’s kitchen to create five entrees, or 20 individual meals.
She then packages the meals according to her clients’ needs, labels them with specific heating instructions, puts them in the freezer, and cleans up her pots and pans.
But convenience isn’t the only sales pitch for personal chef services.
Josh Austin, founder of Nature’s Palate Personal Chef Services in San Diego, said his success lies in catering to personalized needs.
“Not every chef is willing to do that,” said one of Austin’s regular clients, a university professor who didn’t want to miss fine foods despite his serious medical condition that puts heavy restrictions on his dietary needs.
Austin stepped up to the professor’s challenge, creating such ethnically diverse specialties as Moroccan chickpea stew and Armenian ragout, adding no fat and no salt, said the La Jolla professor who asked that his name not be used.
For most Americans, however, the idea of hiring their own personal chef remains a dream. That’s because many can’t afford the price tag of $300 and up for one week’s worth of entrees and services.
McKay said prime candidates for personal chef services are dual-income families that own homes and have combined earnings of $60,000 or more.
Indeed, the three local personal chefs interviewed are mostly serving people in San Diego’s Scripps Ranch, La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe neighborhoods.
Still, entrepreneurs generally are confident that the added service they can provide will attract more clients.
Cindy Holt, who started her personal chef business The Posh Pantry in La Costa in 1993, said she added 15 clients within the last seven years and is fully booked.
Her 20 regular Rancho Santa Fe clientele of working and retired professionals pay $340 for 20 servings, she said.
Holt, who has been a long-standing member with McKay’s Personal Chef Association, said she’s observed a three-fold increase in the organization’s annual membership since 1993.
Chefs most often work alone, serving between 15 and 20 clients to help increase sales.
Leibovich revealed her annual income is between $39,000 and $45,000. And she still has plenty of growth opportunities on top of her current six regular clients, she said.
McKay, who prides himself in pioneering the personal chef business by starting Personally Yours in 1987 in Carlsbad, said you don’t have to be a culinary expert to become a personal chef.
“It helps if you have a passion for cooking, but you don’t need to be culinary-trained,” he said.
From Restaurants To Homes
Yet, more restaurant chefs are beginning to venture into the personal chef business.
Leibovich, for instance, started her business out of frustration in not getting to know her clients. She worked as sous-chef and caterer.
Austin , who worked at a Mediterranean cuisine restaurant in La Jolla , said being a line chef is like being on an assembly line.
McKay and his wife, also a chef, discovered their opportunity at the dinner table.
“We were having dinner with friends and the husband said, ‘must be nice you are married to a chef,'” McKay recalled.
It was and wasn’t. McKay enjoyed his wife’s pre-cooked frozen meals every night while she worked at a restaurant cooking for others.
The idea to prepare pre-cooked meals for others marked the beginning of a catchy trade.
McKay’s association now offers training courses for existing and upcoming personal chefs in 35 kitchens nationwide.
His rival, Candy Wallace, founder of the San Diego-based American Personal Chef Association, which counts 750 members nationwide and 40 locally, also offers cooking classes for personal chefs across the country.
She sees tremendous opportunity.
“The work week has been expanded to 47 hours and people spend about an hour each way in their cars,” Wallace said. “They don’t want to prepare a meal and thus eat a lot of take-out and pre-prepared restaurant food.”
Considering today’s annual combined take-out, delivery and fast-food sales amount to $460 billion in the United States, personal chefs are likely to become a hot commodity in the growing home meal replacement market.