Business partner Tina Kuna says: "The first session was meant to just help our girlfriends out. Stephanie was going to do all the shopping and menu planning, and the friends would come around with a bottle of wine and have some fun. Within half an hour of the e-mail going out she was getting phone calls from friends of friends to ask if they could come along too. What started out as one night became four. From the first night we knew we were on to something: it was just the excitement and energy in the room."
What her friends were excited about was the prospect of saving an hour and a half a day of kitchen toil by pre-assembling a range of family meals that could be stored in the freezer until needed. The concept has taken the US by storm since April 2002, when Kuna, herself a working mother, came on board as Allen's business partner. They opened their first Dream Dinners store three months later in Everett, Washington, and there are now 220 stores across 32 states. The goal is to have a presence in all 50 states and more than 2,000 stores by 2010.
The pair's aspirations do not end there. They are preparing to expand into Canada and, says Kuna, have had interest from potential joint venture partners in Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe. She also reveals that they are at the very early stages of looking at the UK market.
Whether it would work here is debatable. Remember the spectacular rise and fall of Leapingsalmon and Rocket, which operated on a not-dissimilar principle? But it's certainly an interesting proposition.
Aimed at busy working mothers, though men do attend, the concept is simple. First, you log on the web site and select a time and date you'd like to attend your local 'store'. Then you select up to 12 meals from the 14 on the menu and head to the store where to a 'fun' soundtrack (Elvis and Michael Bublé are reportedly popular) you move around 14 'stations' and assemble the raw ingredients for your meals into Ziploc bags or baking trays, storing them as you go in refrigerators. At the end of the two-hour session, you head home and pop the meals into your freezer.
There's more than a whiff of the old Tupperware party about it, Kuna agrees: "We invite 12 people at a time. We like to keep it small so that we can really give people one-to-one help and make it intimate. The idea is that people feel really pampered, and staff are always on hand to refill, clean up and assemble. People often gather as a group and see it as a fun night out."
Evenings tend to be busier, as most customers work, but there's also a brisk trade on Saturdays when stay-at-home mums like to attend.
Kuna, who claims that all her family eats is Dream Dinners, says the goal is simply to help mums feed their families healthier meals. The dishes include lean cuts of meat wherever possible and use the highest quality raw ingredients supplied by Sysco Food Services. This, she says, is what differentiates Dream Dinners from the copycats that have sprung up.
"We're not trying to create a business: we're trying to change a generation," she says. An important factor is that the meals are not pre-cooked. "Cooking them twice would break down the quality and taste of the meals," she says.
Although Kuna describes it as a movement rather than a business venture, there is clearly money to be made. Franchises are 100%-owned and franchisees can run up to three stores, most of which are leased 1,500 sq ft units located in non-prime retail spots. The most successful can generate turnover of more than $1m.
It's no surprise that she and Allen are getting hundreds of applications a week from would-be franchisees. Each candidate is carefully vetted and flown to Washington for a face-to-face interview. "It's not a fast-food restaurant that will take a cheque from anyone," she says.
Like fast-food restaurants though, the concept has international appeal, believes Kuna. "I think that the concept would work throughout the world. Everyone needs to eat and families are busy wherever you are."
Some might argue that the failure of Rocket and Leapingsalmon hasn't exactly set a great precedent in the UK. Following Rocket's acquisition of Leapingsalmon, it fell to earth with a thud two years ago when Unilever Ventures pulled the plug on the concept, claiming that it had not proved "scaleable by Unilever standards".
Kuna has heard of neither, but stresses that Dream Dinners has an important distinguishing characteristic: people assemble the meals themselves rather than simply pick up an already pre-prepared meal. If their kids don't like onions, they can leave them out.
The prices are also more reasonable (an average meal for four to six people costs $16) and the meals are aimed at families, not affluent couples and singles. The concept therefore has greater potential appeal to the mass market, believes Kuna, who adds that they deliberately eschew gourmet recipes and diet fads.
Kuna and Allen are in negotiations with a US grocery retailer to introduce a pared-down version of the concept into a supermarket environment and Kuna hints that they might try a similar route of entry in the UK market.
Of course, there are potential obstacles: whether people have big enough freezers for one. But where Rocket and Leapingsalmon were arguably ahead of their time, Kuna and Allen may prove luckier, thanks to a proposition that cleverly taps into three major trends at once: healthy eating, convenience and value for money. Who's to say that Dream Dinners won't become a reality in the UK?n