Lunchtime office workers don’t dine in Shashank Agtey’s Sidewalk Kitchen Café much anymore. Yet each week 400 customers — Crossfitters, mixed-martial arts fighters — flood his Fort Lauderdale eatery to buy prepackaged refrigerated meals like bison meatballs and spaghetti squash to eat at home.
“Right now, people want their meals healthy and socially distanced,” says Agtey, a Mumbai, India-born chef who’s worked in South Florida kitchens for 40 years. “These prepared meals are the future of dining.”
They’re also a lifeline. For Agtey, 62, much of his lunchtime and takeout sales stopped as coronavirus lockdowns swept Florida this spring, forcing him to lay off everyone save a part-time cook and a dishwasher. His dine-in sales plummeted 90 percent. Then, while promoting his $10.95 prepared meals on Facebook, the unexpected happened: The entrees, each packed with mixed vegetables and lean proteins, flew off his shelves faster than ever.
“There was a big rush yesterday and now we’re out of salmon again,” says Agtey, who stocks the grab-and-go meals in a refrigerated case near the order counter. “What’s driving this is people are scared about spending a dime in dining rooms, plus you have all these families working from home, cooking from home, bored of cooking at home all the time.”
Agtey isn’t alone. Battered by half-empty dining rooms and pitiful takeout sales, South Florida restaurant chefs got creative this summer and transformed their kitchens to pump out a surprising new moneymaker: precooked meals to-go. Designed with quarantined customers in mind, these prepared meals are meant to be picked up or delivered, refrigerated at home, then heated in the oven or microwave.
Unlike restaurant takeout that’s cooked to be eaten immediately, Agtey says, his prepared meals sit in tight, TV dinner-size containers and last up to a week in the fridge. His heat-and-serve meals typically come with six ounces of protein, a starch and vegetables, such as lemongrass chicken and rice with Asian vegetables, turkey shepherd’s pie and shrimp stir fry.
Even high-profile chefs have carved out side hustles selling prepared meals – often partially cooked – out of their existing restaurants. They include chef Michael Schwartz, whose Michael’s Genuine Provisions in July started delivering rigatoni Bolognese kits (simply boil the pasta) and the same hand-sliced pastrami offered at his Miami restaurants.
Chef Joel Ehrlich left his job as head chef of the acclaimed Valentino Cucina Italiana back in April (it permanently closed in June) to work at Oakland Park’s Farm to Fork Meals, a grab-and-go restaurant and catering outfit.
“It’s more fun than Valentino, where you just make the best Italian food, and you’re in a box,” Ehrlich says.
“Now I cook American, Chinese, Spanish, German,” adds Ehrlich, who was head chef at Fort Lauderdale’s One Door East before taking over Valentino when chef-owner Giovanni Rocchio abruptly quit last fall. “Now there is no box. Just a box to go.”
Michael Panza, chef and owner of Farm to Fork Meals, hired Ehrlich on May 1 to ramp up production of the eatery’s “meals to go,” his name for his tightly packaged breakfasts, lunches and dinners made for eating at home. In March, when the pandemic hit, Panza says Farm to Fork’s dine-in sales dropped 80 percent but, to his surprise, “we couldn’t keep enough prepared meals stocked on the shelf,” he says.
But it wasn’t enough to keep Farm to Fork afloat, so he closed the restaurant and did something drastic: Panza, Ehrlich, a sous chef and an army of 25 packers moved into a 40,000-square-foot commissary kitchen in Oakland Park. On big meal production days, Tuesdays and Fridays, staff assemble 10,000 meals weekly. At least 1,000 meals are destined for Farm to Fork’s new grab-and-go storefront, which opened in June in downtown Fort Lauderdale’s Victoria Park Shoppes.
“The demand is so much higher right now than dine-in,” Panza says. “Everyone’s in a state of panic. What we’re hearing people want is convenient fresh meals. So our customers are stocking up with six, eight meals at once. It helps you gain time back in your like. To know they have a fridge at home with prepared meals that take two minutes to heat in the oven, that resolves so much stress.”
Farm to Fork Meals’ strip-mall shop, next to Sip Java Co., has eight refrigerated cases selling 55 different meals in three categories: Paleo, Fit and Vegetarian. It’s $7.95 for breakfast and $11.95 for lunches and dinners, which range from six-ounce filet mignon with fingerling potatoes to pesto-crusted mahi-mahi to orange chili basil shrimp. Each container, which must be finished in the oven, is sealed and contains nutrition facts and cooking instructions.
“We can charge $11.95 for a filet mignon because we’re working in huge volumes – thousands of meals – at the kitchen,” says Panza, who now sells over 1,000 prepared meals weekly at the store.
If prepared meals are surging in popularity across South Florida, they also present a learning curve, says Michael Stanley, who with his wife Karen co-owns MK Takeaways, a prepared meal kitchen in Sunrise. He’s had to educate customers skeptical about the difference between restaurant takeout and his prepared entrees.
“We’re trying to change people’s perception of what a takeaway meal is,” says Stanley, who uses a 25,000-square-foot catering kitchen near the Sawgrass Mills Mall. “Like, how do you get restaurant-quality food, but at home? We’re trying to convince customers that this food is delivered much, much better than cold takeout, and tastes like home cooking.”
When schools closed in March, sales crashed at Stanley’s successful catering company, Yummy in My Tummy, which delivered healthy meals to 4,000 students at 90 South Florida private and charter schools.
Suddenly without clients, Stanley pivoted and opened MK Takeaways in early July. His prepared meals ($7-$17 for salads and soups, $14-$26 for entrees) can be delivered or picked up at the kitchen, which boasts a menu similar to that of a fine-dining eatery: flat-iron steak frites, tamarind barbecue baby back ribs, broccoli rabe and sausage orecchiette. An executive chef, a pastry chef and nine cooks prepare thousands of meals weekly at his kitchen.
“Down the road people will eventually want to go back to restaurants, but for now, because people are afraid, the market is moving to prepared meals,” Stanley says. “They’re safer, they’re convenient and the food keeps for five days.”
Jack Studiale, co-owner of 71-year-old Dania Beach icon Tropical Acres Steakhouse, is no stranger to innovating under pressure. Early in the pandemic, his staff converted the steakhouse into a butcher shop to sell butchered meat cuts for extra revenue. In July came another radical idea: Why not sell prepared meals for customers to finish cooking at home?
“They’ve been so popular. People love them,” says Studiale, who wagers he sells about 400 dinners weekly. “The feedback we’re hearing is, ‘I don’t feel like cooking,’ and steak and lobster dinners don’t travel well. So we got the idea to partially cook them.”
Typical dishes ($12-$15) include a 7-ounce Duroc pork chop with mashed potatoes, seafood-stuffed Atlantic flounder, and mac ‘n’ cheese topped with grilled chicken. Each dinner, packaged in oven-safe aluminum foil containers with cooking instructions, come with a side garden salad, he says.
Studiale voluntarily closed Tropical Acres’ dining room on July 2 as COVID-19 cases spiked, but plans to reopen on Aug. 11. In the meantime, his prepared dinners are so popular he’s thinking of making them permanent items.
“They’re great right now but I’m not making as much money as I would if customers ate in our dining rooms, ordered liquor, sides and dessert,” Studiale says. “But it’s a different world and we have to adjust.”
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