DECEMBER 28, 2011
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Annie Mulligan / For SCBJ 
(click to enlarge)
Dream Dinners co-founders Stephanie Allen (left) and Tina Kuna head a national company but maintain their local roots with headquarters in Snohomish.
Annie Mulligan / For SCBJ 
(click to enlarge)
Dream Dinners co-founders Stephanie Allen (left) and Tina Kuna stand outside their Snohomish headquarters.
M.L. Dehm / SCBJ 
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Dream Dinners founders Tina Kuna (left) and Stephanie Allen and have co-written “The Hour That Matters Most,” which is No. 1 on the New York Times’ Best Seller List for advice paperbacks. Les and Leslie Parrott are co-authors.
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Published: Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dream Dinners founders are now best sellers

SNOHOMISH — Snohomish entrepreneurs Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna have parlayed the success of their Dream Dinners business into a spot on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

“The Hour That Matters Most,” which Allen and Kuna co-wrote with Les and Leslie Parrot, has debuted at No. 1 on the Times' Best Sellers list for paperback advice books.

“I get goose bumps every time I think of it,” Kuna said.

Allen said she had hoped to make the list but never imagined the book would debut in the top slot.

“The Hour That Matters Most” is an easy-to-read collection of advice and anecdotes designed to help today's family reconnect over the dinner table.

While there has been a lot of research to demonstrate the importance of families eating together, Allen and Kuna noted that most of what has been written so far simply makes women feel guilty because it doesn't explain to them how to fit that family dinner into their busy lives.

The authors wanted to avoid the guilt trip and concentrate instead on teaching parents how to provide regular family meals and guide conversation in a positive way. They also touch on effective ways of teaching manners.

Allen and Kuna are experts when it comes to finding time to provide sit-down dinners for their families. The business partners also are the founders of Dream Dinners — probably the best known meal assembly service in the country — and are said to be the originators of the concept.

At Dream Dinners locations, customers are able to quickly and easily assemble a dozen or so dinner entrees in about an hour. These are then taken home and frozen or refrigerated to create convenient meals.

There is no planning or shopping required. Dream Dinners employees lay out the ingredients, handle all of the cleanup and answer questions, offer assistance or grab additional bowls, spoons or tongs if needed.

The store is set up like a series of salad bars. The ingredients are prepped and ready for assembly. Disposable bags or pans are provided. The recipe is on a card above each station. Guests simply follow the instructions and assemble the ingredients for the entree in the provided containers. A card with cooking instructions is then placed with each meal.

Meals can be slightly adjusted according to taste. For example, mothers with young children may want to leave out red pepper flakes or jalapenos. Cheese can be omitted for those sensitive to dairy products.

Menu options change each month. Food descriptions and nutritional information are available online in advance. They're not “diet” meals but are billed as nutritionally sound and a healthy alternative to fast food and eating out.

The service is popular with businessmen and women who have little time to shop and cook and with stay-at-home parents who are tied into busy schedules.

We tried Dream Dinners and the evening we visited we found a mix of men and women assembling entrees. Employees played upbeat '80s music and offered coffee and cookies to create a party-like atmosphere.

One of the most popular meals being assembled that night was a nine-layer lasagna. After stirring together the ingredients for a scratch marinara sauce, the prepared frozen noodles, spinach and cheeses were layered in a disposable pan.

This particular dish can be cooked straight from the freezer, although many of the meals need to be thawed first. The cost was $17.99 for a three-portion tray and $33.99 for a six-portion tray. While it's possible to find less expensive, ready-made frozen lasagna, these were scratch-made and essentially preservative free and offered a homemade flavor when cooked.

Entrees varied in cost from $11.99 for some three-portion dishes up to $36.99 for a sesame-marinated flank steak for six that was grab-and-go with no assembly required. There is a minimum purchase requirement of the equivalent of 36 portions during a scheduled session. For an additional cost, Dream Dinners employees will prepare meals for customers to pick up.

Overall, we found the quality of all the dinners we tried to be above average. Most cooked in less than 30 minutes from start to finish, making them ideal for busy professionals.

Allen created the concept while trying to balance life as a caterer and a soccer mom. For years, she would get together with a friend and prepare the majority of her family dinners in advance. She always had a meal ready to pop in the oven after a game. Other soccer moms asked how she did it.

Kuna was one of Allen's friends who asked for some dinner preparation tips. As a businesswoman, she was quick to see the potential when she and Allen hosted a “girl's night out” to prep meals and, without advertising, they were swamped with requests to join.

The business started in earnest in 2002 and within a year, Allen and Kuna found themselves on the cover of Working Mother magazine. More media coverage followed, including television appearances on the “Nate Berkus Show'' and other programs.

This generated even more interest and led to Dream Dinners franchises popping up around the country.

Today, Dream Dinners has 105 stores in 30 states. According to Allen, customers are cooking up 700,000 servings a month. There is a Snohomish County franchise in Mill Creek Town Center. The company headquarters is in downtown Snohomish.

While “The Hour That Matters Most” mentions Dream Dinners, it does not promote the business. Instead, it offers ideas of how people can do it at home. It is aimed at helping the family remain healthy in body and attitude.

“Times have changed,” Kuna said. “We're not June Cleaver or even our own mothers who might have had dinner on the table every night. Life has changed and we need to learn to adapt.”

Kuna and Allen hope their book will help people to do just that.

Meet the authors

A book signing for Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna's book, “The Hour That Matters Most,” and an open house will take place from 5 to 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 18, at Dream Dinners company headquarters, 610 First St., Snohomish.

Another accolade for Allen and Kuna?

Dream Dinners has been named as a finalist in the prestigious Stevie Awards for Women in Business. Now in its seventh year, the Stevie Awards for Women in Business is a global awards program that honors women executives and entrepreneurs, as well as the companies they run.

Dream Dinners has been named one of nine finalists in the Best Overall Business up to 100 Employees category for its service business category.

Winners will be announced at a New York City awards ceremony on Nov. 11.

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