The Convenient Cuisine Scene

Time was when a gourmet meal meant out-on-the-town fine dining.

Increasingly, however, there are creative alternatives to the ritzy restaurant scene. The cachet and convenience of at-home gourmet dining has caught on.

Take it from Margaret Franklin, the co-owner of Tampa’s Franklin Travel Inc. She and her husband work long hours and travel a lot. Time is something they don’t have a lot of – and they don’t like allotting it to shop, cook and clean up.

At least once a week, Franklin stops by Chavez at Home in Tampa’s SoHo section for “Gourmet Take-Home Cuisine.” Typically she calls ahead and orders off the a la carte menu. For something special, she’ll allow for a two-day turnaround. “You can get whatever you want,” says Franklin, “including a fantastic Lobster Thermidor.”

Denise Chavez’s year-old, take-out enterprise has found a South Tampa, disposable income niche spanning empty nesters to young singles to Mayor Pam Iorio.

Menu entrees range from prime rib to a shrimp and crab casserole; sides include baked apricots, brandied fruit gelatin, twice-baked potatoes and even a Brunswick Stew.

“I can get anything you want,” says Chavez. “I’ll get you a server if you request one.” Indeed, she can accommodate requests for wine, linens, china, flowers or musicians.

The popularity of at-home fine fare has even drawn the attention of the Schwan Food Co., one of the largest, branded frozen-food companies in the U.S. In October 2004, it launched the Impromptu Gourmet Complete Meal Experience. Diners can go online (www.Impromptugourmet.com) to access and assess menus for entrees, appetizers, soups, sides, breads and desserts and, in effect, design their own meals. Culinary agents also stand by for orders and/or questions (877-632-5766). Delivery is 3-5 days.

“We looked at the trends out there,” says Glenn Bader, Schwan’s director of emerging channels, “and we thought corporate gifting could work for us. We also saw the rise of the ‘foodies,’ an aging demographic and people who have money and want to pamper themselves. We saw an opportunity to sell ‘an experience.'”

To that end, IG’s “You-buy-the-wine-and-turn-on-the-oven” service also includes a CD (jazz, blues or classical) and a guide to cooking, seating, table-setting and wine-pairing. Early menu favorites, says Bader, include the lobster bisque for starters, entrees Beef Wellington and a Seafood Cannelloni and the sweet-tooth pleasing tiramisu.

Yet another variation on the convenient cuisine theme is storefront kitchens, where ingredients and recipes are ready and waiting. According to the Easy Meal Press Association, there are now more than 200 companies across the U.S. and Canada offering this “make-and-take” main course service. Among the dozen or so in the Bay Area is the Tampa Bay Supper Club in Safety Harbor that opened last December.According to co-owner David Stender, it’s been a “gangbusters” response from those who appreciate the turnkey approach with a collegial atmosphere. It’s become a venue where friendships can be fostered and mother-daughter relationships fortified.

TBSC has 16 stations, with no more than 10 in use at a time. There are three (1 3/4 hour) sessions Wednesday-Saturday, with a single session on Sunday. The menu, which changes monthly, features 12-16 items. Sample entrees have included lobster strudel, bacon-wrapped artichoke chicken and the surprise favorite: Cape Capensa South African white fish. Diners choose 4-packs ($77), 8-packs ($148) or 12-packs ($199).

“The concept has taken off,” says Stender. “The food they take out is as consistent as any good restaurant’s and our guests – not ‘customers’ – have a wonderful time.”

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