Today, I am making spinach-and-cheese cannelloni for dinner. Here’s how. I walk into a brightly lit, absolutely spotless kitchen. Someone hands me an apron and a cup of coffee (morning) or glass of wine (afternoon). I go to a refrigerated work station where all the ingredients are prepped and ready to go — the spinach washed, dried and chopped, the Asiago cheese grated, the fresh pasta squares rolled and cut, the zesty marinara sauce ready to use.
Following step-by-step instructions and using measuring tools and other implements laid out for me, I mix the filling and assemble the rolls in the container provided. Elapsed time: about eight minutes. After labeling the dish and putting it in my designated refrigerator space, I move on to my next recipe at my next station — leaving bowls and stuff for somebody else to clean up. Cooking like this is fun!
That’s the essence of what goes on at Let’s Eat!. This unique Sarasota shop, located in the University Park Center, is in the meal preparation or meal assembly business, less formally — “fix and freeze.” The concept is about 10 years old, and several brands tried out in Sarasota without success. But Let’s Eat! happily is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year.
Mark Minton, a British food enthusiast who hails from Yorkshire, England, opened the shop as a retirement business in May 2006. At the time, it was a franchise out of Tampa, but now it is a stand-alone operation and he is a proud parent. Herbs are fresh, lemon juice comes from lemons, and the shop chops its own garlic and onions. Minton will modify recipe ingredients to customers’ preferences, and he and his staff are there on premises to help.
Let’s Eat! offers a menu of dinner entrées that changes monthly. The customer selects what she would like to prepare and makes an appointment. When she arrives, everything is ready and waiting. As Minton says, “We’ve shopped, we’ve chopped and we’ll clean up.” It’s a winning proposition; Minton estimates that 75% to 80% of his business is from repeat customers.
Dr. Allison Silver has been coming to Let’s Eat! once a month virtually since the day it opened. She likes to cook, and she is committed to healthful eating, but with three small children, she is time-challenged — to say the least. The shop modifies ingredients to her specifications (Kosher style, no added salt, organic meats and veggies). Hoisin steak takes less than five minutes, the eight cannelloni not much longer than that. In about an hour-and-a-half, she has prepared 12 home-cooked dinners, each serving four to six.
“My kids love everything,” she says.
The menu choices at Let’s Eat! include meats, poultry, fish and vegetarian options. Some are low-carbohydrate, less than 15 grams. Others marked with a heart contain less than 500 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat and 600 mg of sodium per serving.
Somewhat surprisingly, the luxury of having all the prep work done for you does not come at a huge cost premium — if any. One dish on the present menu is Greek-style chicken and orzo. Purchasing the ingredients at the supermarket (olive oil, feta, chicken tenders, onion, lemon, fresh dill, garlic, yogurt and dried oregano) came to $24.56. A “Take 2 Tuesday” Sample Session at Let’s Eat! costs $25 per dish; a four-meal session costs $23.50 per dish, an eight-meal session $21 per dish.) Taking into consideration that you will have olive oil for other dishes, the Let’s Eat! way is less expensive than doing it yourself at home. It is unquestionably less work and a great deal more enjoyable!