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In Acton, customers are eating out of their hands

Making and taking dinners a hit

The Gathering Kitchen owners Tracey Belden (left) and Leslie Ring help put dinner on the table. The Gathering Kitchen owners Tracey Belden (left) and Leslie Ring help put dinner on the table. (BILL POLO/GLOBE STAFF)

What's for dinner? Plenty, if you speak to Tracey Belden and Leslie Ring, owners of The Gathering Kitchen, who call themselves dinner-dilemma solvers.

The meal-preparation business opened last October in a building off Powdermill Road in Acton, near the Concord and Maynard town lines.

"I'm a foodie who's always enjoyed cooking," Ring, 51, said during an interview last week in the firm's airy meal-assembly area, where customers prepare six, nine, or 12 entree selections. They then take the offerings home in Ziploc bags and freeze them for use later.

"We want people to come in and enjoy themselves while they're preparing something different for dinner," said Belden, 37, a former property manager in Concord and Acton who handles the business end of things for the fledgling enterprise. She lives in West Concord.

Belden and Ring met 15 years ago through Belden's mother, who was a friend of Ring's. At the time, Belden was taking graduate courses in accounting at Northeastern University and Ring was a software development consultant.

Then, about five years ago, the two "batted around a lot of ideas about the types of businesses that we could start," Belden said. Two years ago, one idea clicked. "I heard about the meal-preparation concept on National Public Radio," said Ring, who grew up in Harvard and now lives in Bow, N.H.

This concept has taken off in the last few years. A franchised network launched four years ago, Dream Dinners, now has 258 outlets in the US, said Alice Haynes, spokeswoman for the Snohomish, Wash.-based franchisor.

"We're the originator of the concept and the largest franchised organization in this field," Haynes said. The basic franchise fee, she said, is $35,000.

Dream Dinners' Massachusetts outlets are in North Andover, Framingham, Danvers, Milford, Shrewsbury, West Boylston, Walpole, and Plainville, Haynes said.

Ring said she thinks her business offers "more personal attention to customers than franchised operators do."

She and Belden initially invested $150,000, in the new venture. Revenues from last October through next month are expected to be about $200,000, Belden said. There are approximately 1,000 individuals who prepare meals from time to time at The Gathering Kitchen, she said.

The primary service area, Ring noted, is Concord, Acton, Sudbury, Stow, Groton, Harvard, Boxborough, Westford, and Maynard.

The word-of-mouth business, which now has six part-time employees, got off the ground by appealing to certain groups, Ring said.

"Members of the Acton Newcomers' Club were the first to come here, for example," she said, "and since then we've had many different functions like bridal and baby showers, moms' night s out, and husbands wanting to prepare something special for Mother's Day."

Ring and Belden roll out different menus periodically. The 16 July and August offerings include baby-back ribs, salmon in foil, chicken with a Jamaican jerk seasoning, black bean and cheese burritos, marinated pork, and gazpacho.

National distributors provide most of the food, but Ring and Belden said they also shop locally for ingredients such as herbs.

Variety is the spice of the entrees, Ring said. "We are always focusing on five chicken, three beef, three pork, three vegetable, and two fish dishes," she added.

Although dieters' delights are not sought after, Ring said, "many of our entrees fit that profile. We tend to use lean cuts of meat, poultry, and fish, and, when it makes sense, we offer reduced-fat options such as olive oil instead of butter in a recipe."

Many customers place their orders on the firm's website (thegatheringkitchen.com), she said. Prices of six, nine, or 12 entrees are $125, $175, and $225, she said, adding that each entree feeds six people.

If a customer wants to have entrees assembled for them, there is an extra charge of $25, Ring said. So, in that case, a package of six dinners, for instance, would cost $150. It takes about an hour to assemble six entrees, each feeding six people, she said.

One regular customer, Gwyn Thakur of Acton, said she is learning "as I'm assembling the entrees.

"And I love the way you're brought through the process," she said.

Moreover, "because I'm domestically challenged, doing business with The Gathering Kitchen has changed my life for the better, reducing huge amounts of stress," said Thakur, owner of a small marketing firm. She and her husband, Vijay, have two children.

Her family's favorite dishes, she said, "are all kinds of chicken, chili, stuffed pork, and quiches, which are especially superb."

Another customer, Polly Hill of Concord, said she's "thrilled to come home with tasty food after a busy work day."

Hill is a sales consultant to Dun & Bradstreet in Waltham. She has three children.

Hill said she and her family favor the salmon and meatloaf recipes. "When I buy nine entrees, I often split some of them into two meals."

Belden said that "fortunately" the company gets "a lot of repeat business" from Hill and others like her.

Down the line, another store could be opened, Belden said, emphasizing, though, that she and Ring have no interest in forming a franchised network.

Meantime, Belden said, "We're doing what we set out to do: to do this one business very well."

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