Optimist eats up being wife, entrepreneur

Optimist eats up being wife, entrepreneur

By MARGARET NEWKIRK  /  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/26/07


Stephanie
Wright says she got the idea for The Dinner A’ Fare while listening to
women on their cellphones worrying about what to have for dinner.

The company sells ready-to-cook gourmet meals, with ingredients
sliced, diced, cleaned and measured out, cutting home cooking time in
half, Wright says. The company is now in 32 locations in eight states.

Sean Drakes/Special
Stephanie
Wright, co-founder/owner of The Dinner A’Fare (right), observes as
Natalie Lasch, corporate executive chef, preps ingredients.
 
STEPHANIE WRIGHT FILE
• Residence: Cumming
• Family: My husband and I are expecting our first on Nov. 1. We are going to be surprised to find out if it is a girl or a boy.
• Hobbies:
I have a horse and love to play around with him. Ken and I play golf
when we can, and kayaking is always fun in the spring or fall.
• Favorite book:
I don’t really get much time to read leisure books, but I would say
that I do love any books by Peter Mayle. … I am waiting for his
latest! EMyth is also a good read for work.
• Favorite movie (all time): "Overboard." I am a huge Goldie Hawn fan!
• Words of wisdom: Work. Enjoy what you do every day. It is what you spend the majority of your time doing

Wright’s success came despite what would traditionally be seen as obstacles.

She’s young — 32. And she has had to use a wheelchair since she was 16.

Q: How did you decide to go into business for yourself?

A: Well, we [Wright and her husband] moved to Atlanta right
after Sept. 11, and the job market was not all that hot. We were
looking for alternative jobs where we weren’t working 18 hours a day. I
have a degree in art history, and my background is working with art
galleries on event planning. In grad school, I had to get a second job
in a paint-your-own pottery studio and I loved it so much. I always
said I wanted to open one. … And we were working really hard, and not
getting paid much and not seeing each other much. So we decided to open
a pottery studio at Discover Mills, The Painted Potter. And we started
saving every penny we made to open another business. We just sold The
Painted Potter two months ago.

Q: What gave you the idea for The Dinner A’ Fare?

A: At the studio, women would always come and paint, and when I was
checking them out, I could hear them on their cellphones, saying ‘What
do you want for dinner,’ and ‘I don’t care, just pick up something.’ We
always heard people struggling to make dinner at home. Then, we were
watching TV one night about 3 a.m. — neither of us could sleep and we
were talking and watching, I think, the Fine Living Channel — and there
was this little tiny clip of this company in California that was doing
this. It was a mom-and-pop and we contacted them. They weren’t
interested in franchising or expanding. We thought, our customers would
love this. We opened our company in 2004. By 2007, there are 20
different companies around the country doing this.

Q: Is yours the biggest?

A: No. There’s a company called Superstuffers. They are very, very
large. We focus more on gourmet, though, on all-natural chicken and
things like that. That’s what we’re focused on. Our customers like
restaurants. They like to choose off menus. So we tried to make our
menus look like restaurant menus, but with food you can cook at home.

Q: How does it work?

A: People go online and they pick their menu. They pick the time
they want to come in and the location (10 in the metro Atlanta area).
There are 15 menu items. They can buy six meals or 12.

There are two package sizes, one for one-to-three people and one for
four-to-six. They show up, we give them a printout with the recipe. The
meats are cleaned, pre-portioned and in a zip-lock bag. We’ve chopped
the onion and diced the celery. The spices are set up: If a recipe
requires half a teaspoon, it’s in there. All you have to do is preheat
the oven. You don’t have to go to the grocery store. You don’t have to
buy more than you want. Like when a recipe needs a teaspoon. You have
to buy the whole jar, and when are you going to use saffron again?

Q: How did you build the business?

A: Advertisement. We advertise through various Web sites. We do Pink
magazine, which is kind of the female version of Forbes. We advertise
on Google — which is very expensive. When we go into a market that we
know we want to grow in, we do radio, newspapers: We do spend a lot of
money on advertising.

Q: How do you choose what markets you want to get into?

A: We look at where we’re getting franchise inquiries from, and then
we review the market and decide where we want to go in. We’re in
Nashville, Raleigh, Orlando. We like larger cities that have suburbs
and city centers, like Philly or Indianapolis — that kind of
up-and-coming city. We want cities where a lot of people between 28 and
54 are moving and working. We want cities where the drive times are
long, and where they’re taking their kids to events. It’s typically
more expensive to live in those cities.

Q: Did going into your own business give you more time with your husband?

A: It’s more time-consuming, but we get to do it together. … I
used to think you work for yourself, you get to keep your own hours.
I’ve learned that’s not true. But we work in the same office. We get to
be together.

Q: Were there special permitting needs to start a business like this?

A: We actually worked with the Department of Agriculture to write
the rules for the meal assembly industry in Georgia. Because it’s new,
there were no laws that existed. We’re not a restaurant. We’re not a
grocery store, but we’re more like a grocery store, which is why we
went with Agriculture. We worked on the rules, some of which changed
the way we ran our company and made us a better company.

Q: Are there any obstacles you face because of being in a wheelchair?

A: Working in the stores is a bit of a chore. Modern industrial
kitchens aren’t the most accessible places in the world, but we’ve made
it work. … We also have a policy that if someone is in a wheelchair,
or disabled in any way, we will make the meals for free for them.
Usually, it’s a $35 extra fee to prepare the meal. Anyone with a
disability, we waive that fee.

Q: What advice or warning do you have for those wanting to start a business?

A: I would say that you have to work more hours than you expect, and
to understand that. And that there’s always a learning curve, and that
making mistakes isn’t always a bad thing. And, oh gosh, have fun. Be
positive. You have to be positive. If you don’t put a positive spin on
everything it can get you down.

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