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As dinner prep time shrinks, restaurants should expand their reach

This week, an eye-opening infographic landed in my inbox from The Hartman Group. The Bellevue, Wash.-based research company asked consumers: What is the ideal length of time for dinner preparation each night? Here’s how the answers fell:

Less than 20 minutes: 19%
20 minutes but less than 30 minutes: 32%
30 minutes but less than 40 minutes: 26%

The big surprise: Preparation times did not vary significantly across age groups.

I know what a drag it can be to cook dinner day in and day out for a family with kids. I did it for years and even though I love to cook, there were nights when I tried to get it over as quickly as possible. But a simple dinner of burgers on the grill, a tossed salad and baked potatoes (even in the microwave) takes at least 40 minutes for prep and cooking. The food magazines back in the 1990s touted headlines like “Dinner in 60 minutes” and were proud of it. And consumers ate it up. We were thrilled to put an herb-roasted chicken or lasagna on the table in an hour.

Now even my generation of baby boomers wants to cut that prep time at least in half.

How about the millennials who are so concerned about clean labels and natural ingredients? Don’t they want to have absolute control over the food they eat and feed their kids all the way through its raw and cooked states?

According to Hartman, millennials are over four times more likely than boomers (18% vs. 4%) to say they rarely have the time or energy to cook. At the same time, millennials confess they only know how to cook a few things (26% say this compared to 15% of boomers).

So how can restaurants capitalize on these trends? Here are three ideas to start:

Offer cooking classes

Teach those millennials how to prepare a few simple meals; 44% say they want to learn to cook, according to Hartman’s research. Cooking classes are a good way to win customer loyalty—and share of stomach.

Get into the delivery business big time

Others already are infringing on your turf. Companies outside the industry, including Blue Apron, Hello Fresh! and Plated provide the exact quantity of raw ingredients necessary to make several dinners for two. The ingredients are mostly fresh and unprocessed or clearly labeled, and each meal comes with detailed recipes and directions.

See what virtual restaurants are doing

These “restaurants without walls” offer delivery of chef-prepared meals cooked at a central commissary. Munchery and Maple are two services that are pioneering this idea and competing with traditional restaurants. When the meals are delivered, customers simply heat and serve the food and have dinner on the table in less than 20 minutes. As millennial foodies have kids of their own, they won’t be going out to restaurants as often—but they will want to continue dining on restaurant-quality food.
 

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