Today’s Tribune featured a profile of The Corner Chef, a family-run prepared food store in Evanston. We are proponents of both family-run businesses and prepared food, so this caught our interest. The article addresses the difficulties that independent purveyors in the “home-meal-replacement category” encounter: competition with chains like Whole Foods that offer similar products, and competition with fast casual restaurants that serve the same market of busy, cost-conscious families. This particular niche has been growing quickly; a New York Times article from last summer reported that, owing to the introduction of curbside delivery, fast casual takeout sales have increased 10% a year in the past few years, which is double their rate of overall sales growth. God forbid people actually get out of their cars and walk into a restaurant and interact with human beings to get their dinner, but we digress. Suburban and exurban America has discovered the pleasures of dining well at home without cooking.
The role that these places play in urban areas (Evanston qualifies) is to complement the vast array of restaurants offering delivery services. The majority of available delivery consists of a variety of ethnic foods and pizza, little of which a home chef would likely prepare him or herself (we mean, like, on a Tuesday night after work, when one kid has the flu and the other one just learned how to yodel). Places like The Corner Chef aim to provide high quality, American-style meals in customizable quantity. This is something restaurants cannot do, especially they (should) make everything to order - you can’t ask your waiter for a third of a pound of mashed potatoes to go with four slices of meatloaf.
But selling food, exclusively, is financially difficult, since alcohol sales provide the lion’s share of many a restaurant’s profits, and the takeout setup discourages casual drop-ins who don’t have a nearby home in which to eat the food. Many of these places fold, even if they have loyal local clientele. One way for the independents to stay afloat is to branch into catering, which The Corner Chef plans to do. We think that format has a bright future, though, as the desire for home-cooked meals remains strong while the labor of cooking continues to be distributed outside the house.
[Photo: Trotter’s To Go]