'Businesses of convenience' booming

Looking for help with the chores is becoming a profitable niche industry, both locally and nationally

Heidi Schiller
   Twenty years ago, paying for easy- meal prep services, pet day care and professional home organizing would have been considered outlandish extravagances to most Americans.
   Now, these industries are all in a day’s work — for savvy entrepreneurs who have tapped into busy Americans’ desire for convenient solutions to daily, time-consuming routines, that is.
   Both men and women are working more, and many are choosing to outsource domestic duties that once were the daily or weekly standard, and a number of local businesses are cashing in by picking up their slack.

Food-preparation businesses like Evelyn Turner’s Easy Entrée have gone from being nonexistent in 2002 to having more than 900 nationwide in 2005, according to a recent study.

The Easy Entrée
   Clean and glistening with stainless steel appliances, The Easy Entrée, located on Hannegan Road, is warmed at the same time by cheerful green and orange walls. Spices such as cumin and paprika, neatly contained in little white jars, sit atop 16 prep stations that line the large square room.
   Customers — mostly women — make a date to assemble already-prepped ingredients by following recipes for entrees such as Caribbean Rum Chicken and Mama’s Tilapia Parmesan posted above the workstations.
   They come alone or with friends and usually spend about one to three hours making 16 entrees for $203 or seven entrees for $102, owner Evelyn Turner said. Each entrée serves four to six people, which works out to about $2.50 per serving.
   Then they take the entrees home in coolers, store the meals in freezers, defrost one daily in the morning, and pop it in the oven at night.
   Voila, easy entree is served.
   Turner said a cost-comparison reveals that her meals are more affordable than they would be to make at home with ingredients purchased at a local grocery store.
   “I had my own biases in the beginning about who the customers would be. I thought the target market would be 30-to-50-year-old working mothers, which it is primarily. But I also have empty-nesters, singles and stay-at-home moms,” she said.
   Turner said her business is perfect for overworked, overstressed women who don’t particularly enjoy cooking.
   “People who walk in the door have a deer-in-the-headlights look. They are so stressed out and don’t know how to cope,” she said. “They have given up as much sleep as they can.”
   The industry is growing fast, and the largest easy-meal prep companies, Dream Dinners and Super Suppers, are some of the fastest growing franchises in the U.S., according to an April 2005 Newsweek article.
   “The whole concept was originally driven by moms wanting to provide healthy meals for the family, and to bring the family back to the table instead of bringing home fast food,” said Amy Vasquez, a representative for the Easy Meal Prep Association, based in Cheyenne, Wyo.
   In 2002, there were four easy-meal prep businesses in the U.S. Now, there are 900, Vasquez said.
   While most parents both work now, mealtime is usually still left to moms, she said. With easy-meal prep, moms see and can control what’s going into their food, whereas they don’t have that option with fast food and take out, Vasquez said.
   Charlynn Sutton, owner of Gone Diving, on Iowa Street, works 70 hours a week and immediately started using The Easy Entrée when it opened in November 2004. In her pre-Easy Entrée days, she and her husband struggled with dinnertime decisions.
   “We would come home from work and stare at each other with the ‘Aren’t you cooking dinner?’ look,” she said.
   Now, Sutton doesn’t have to go to the store as often or spend as much time planning and preparing. It saves her at least an hour a day, which she now spends reading a magazine and relaxing.
   “It’s improved my sanity because there is less bickering over who is cooking dinner or who is going to the store,” she said. “It’s improved our relationship.”

Matthew Prendergast is happy to entertain your furry friends at Ruff Day while you work.

Ruff Day Doggie Daycare
   A 2002 study of pet owners by Unity Marketing, a consumer research firm, found that 55 percent of American households own one or more pets, and of those, one-third give their pets a central position in their family.
   This demographic has a low incidence of children at home, so the pet becomes the “baby of the family,” the study found. These pet owners spend between 50 percent to 66 percent more than other pet owners annually on pet items.
   On a recent Monday afternoon, five of those pet owners’ dogs yipped and yelped while playing catch with Matthew Prendergast, co-owner of Ruff Day Doggie Daycare on Lincoln Street.
   With dog “parents” working longer hours, the dog day-care industry is growing, Matthew said.
   Ruff Day has three playrooms for small, medium and large-sized dogs as well as an outdoor play area where the dogs spend at least half the day. Dog parents can drop their dogs off for just one day for $20 or buy discounted monthly packages.
   In the entryway, a stack of cubby boxes, called “bone boxes,” let dog owners stow their pets’ leashes and treats. Dog clients named Shaggy, Mason-Dixon, Lexi, Corky and Karma, among others, have bone boxes in their name.
   Matthew and his wife, Alieca, decided to research opening a dog day care three years ago when they placed their own pure-bred black lab, Rudi — who Alieca calls their “baby” — in day care. They noticed the only place in town had long waiting lists. So they spent three years researching, learning dog CPR and working with trainers to start their own dog day care and opened for business in June.
   Most of their customers are professionals — “people who work crazy hours and can’t spend enough time with their dog,” Alieca said.
   She said she thinks the recent increase in condo and apartment living in Bellingham has resulted in less yard space for dogs and a greater need for places where dogs can get exercise, like Ruff Day.
   Evelyn Luther, a chiropractic assistant, works 40 to 50 hours a week and said she’s been taking her 9-month-old puppy, Max, to Ruff Day since it opened.
   “I work so much, and he’s so energetic and needed the exercise,” she said. She usually drops Max off three times a week for $16 a day, which is about $6 more per day than her daughter’s summer day care.
   At first, Luther’s mother-in-law thought she was crazy.
   “She was like, ‘you’re taking your dog where?’” she said.
   But after a while, Luther’s friends and family noticed how much less hyper and more easy-going Max had become.
   “It makes me feel not as guilty to go to work. He’s meeting other dogs and getting acquainted with them, and now at the park he understands not to play so rough with the other dogs,” she said. “It’s like taking my daughter to day care. They treat my dog like he’s human.”

Home Artistry
   Misty Thomas, owner of Home Artistry, helps people make the most of their home by offering them her expertise in organizing and decorating.
   “Sometimes people are organizationally challenged or artistically challenged, and I help them with that,” she said.
   First, she helps her clients create organizational systems for their drawers, cupboards and closets, and then she helps them decorate, usually with objects they already own. She particularly prides herself on her “home-editing skills,” or helping clients get rid of clutter.
   “The first thing she said was, ‘You’ve got to learn how to throw things out,’” said client Mark Holzband.
   As a single, retired teacher who moved to Bellingham from Los Angeles six months ago, Holzband had collected books, paintings and antiques that he needed help organizing and decorating within his new three-bedroom home.
   Thomas provided Holzband with direction and focus, and also acted as a coordinator for painting and building services that he said were extremely hard to come by during the summer.
   “I needed a co-captain,” he said. “Sometimes you just need an outside party. I would have never thought of these color schemes.”
   Thomas, a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, said most of her clients are middle-aged professionals that are just too busy to organize and decorate on their own. Some, she said, are people who never learned how to set up organizational systems.
   “They don’t teach home economics in school anymore. The basics aren’t being learned and more moms work outside the home and aren’t passing it down,” she said.
   A recent increase in TV shows with home improvement themes is also driving the desire to organize and beautify interiors.
   Luckily, Thomas grew up with strong organizational mentors.
   “I got it from my mom and grandma. I’ve always loved my home and love to entertain and design,” she said. “It’s who I am. It’s part of my DNA.”



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