A new arrival in the Dane County food market has another answer to that perennial question: What's for dinner?
Opening five stores in the last two months, MyMenu offers frozen meals, from family-size to single servings, as well as appetizers, desserts, soups and pizza.
Advertising "hundreds of meal ideas" in one aisle, the stores offer, for example, hand-trimmed steaks ready for the grill in 20 minutes, and one-person meals of lasagna or beef shepherd's pie for the microwave.
Maple salmon skewers, with chunks of salmon marinated in maple syrup with cracked pepper, have been a big seller so far in Dane County, a company spokeswoman said.
The stores are selling convenience plus a focus on quality in their effort to secure a niche in the fast-changing and competitive business category called home meal replacement, an industry analyst said.
MyMenu is the first international endeavor of a large privately held business in Canada called M&M Meat Shops, with headquarters in Kitchener, Ontario, and 465 stores across the country.
At MyMenu, "our best customer is a 25-to-54-year-old soccer mom chef, someone who wants great quality meals and is pressed for time," said Gary Decatur, president and chief operating officer of MyMenu and M&M Meats.
That customer can park at a store's front door, consult well-trained employees called product consultants, sample some items, linger if she wants or be out the door in just a few minutes, he said.
Products include chicken quesadillas for four people, at $7.99; breaded haddock fillets, at $14.99 for seven to 10 portions; and individual microwaveable chicken pies for $2.99. Dessert trays are $10.99 for such treats as chocolate fudge brownies or raspberry macaroon bars.
A VIBRANT CITY
Zeroing in on Dane County was "a pretty involved process" that began with ranking 42 countries before the choice was narrowed to the U.S. Midwest and then to Wisconsin and the Madison area, Decatur said.
"Madison was head and shoulders above" other potential markets, Decatur said, but company executives wanted first-hand impressions to supplement demographic and marketing studies.
They came to town "and we fell in love with Madison," Decatur said. "It's a great city, it's a vibrant city. People are wonderful. And we just felt we'd fit in."
Madison has no shortage of supermarkets, whose frozen-food aisles are MyMenu's primary competitors.
Nevertheless, it may be a timely move, according to a business consultant who sees consumers cutting back on restaurant trips but still looking for convenience and quick meals.
"Despite the economic downturn, people are not going back to making meals from scratch," said Bert Vermeulen, president of Easy Meal Prep Co., a consulting company based in Cheyenne, Wy., and founder of a trade association of related businesses.
WHAT'S FOR DINNER?
Hungry food-seekers can choose fresh or frozen easy-to-prepare meals from a large supermarket, smaller store or takeout restaurant, he said, and research shows many people decide only in the late afternoon what to eat for dinner that night.
MyMenu has chosen a niche in Wisconsin that has succeeded for them in Canada, Vermeulen said, and "now the question is whether they will have the capability of implementing it effectively."
Dane County may reflect what Vermeulen reports as a general trend away from make-it-yourself meal outlets, many of whom have shifted toward a takeout model.
Two make-it-yourself stores in Middleton - Super Suppers, which opened in 2006, and Main Dish Kitchen, which opened in 2005 - have since closed. A spokeswoman for Dinner by Design, a meal assembly and takeout business based in Grayslake, Ill., said Friday it has no current plans to add to its 12 Wisconsin locations.
The solely takeout service MyMenu says it's already seeing customers coming back to its Dane County stores, sometimes after they taste a meal sample on a first visit.
"They're finding that it's a little bit different than what they're used to," said Anita Martin, store operations manager for MyMenu.
She said the food meets some customers' search for a dish that looks homemade. One Canadian buyer served MyMenu scalloped potatoes as her own, then returned for more after her relatives demanded she bring them to a reunion, Martin said.
A visit to the Fitchburg MyMenu store found a friendly and helpful employee on duty and most prices clearly displayed. Although the Web site does not list prices, except weekly specials, or ingredients and nutritional information, food packages include that information plus clear directions for thawing and cooking.
Decatur, whose personal favorite is the bacon-wrapped beef filet mignon ($22.99 for four steaks), said MyMenu expects to open three more stores in the Midwest by the end of the year. All will be corporately owned for now, though the company may consider franchises later.
He's confident customers will like the food.
"Once they try our products, they'll be back and they'll tell their friends," he said.\
MyMenu stores have opened at:
1 Dempsey Road in Dempsey Place, on Madison's East Side; 608-243-8178.
2687 Windsor St., Sun Prairie, in Suntowne Plaza; 608-825-1087.
6309 McKee Road, Fitchburg, in Orchard Pointe near Target; 608-270-9452.
2862-B University Ave., in University Station, on Madison's Near West Side; 608-232-1450.
6636 Mineral Point Road, in Clock Tower Court, on Madison's West Side; 608-827-2777.
Stores are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
A grand opening celebration will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 16 at all stores. Customers may buy a hot dog or brat and a drink for $2; proceeds will go to the American Family Children's Hospital at UW-Madison.
Web site: www.mymenustores.com