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Cena owners reinvent make-ahead meal service into dinner delivery

Sam and Kim Hernandez run Cena, a meal delivery service they operate out of a commercial kitchen space in the back of their home. (Jesse Tinsley)
Sam and Kim Hernandez run Cena, a meal delivery service they operate out of a commercial kitchen space in the back of their home. (Jesse Tinsley)

Sam and Kim Hernandez purchased Cena from its original owners when the meal-assembly business was white hot.

People were booking dates at the make-ahead businesses so they could put together a month’s worth of freezer meals in a few hours. Cena, the only one of the handful of local meal assembly kitchens with a beer and wine license, billed its service as an upscale solution to the nagging what’s-for-dinner question.

Customers turned it into a night out with friends, sipping wine under chandeliers and visiting while they stashed away freezer bags full of meals that only needed to be thawed and cooked.

Cena (pronounced “say-nah,” from the Spanish and Italian word for diner) sold franchises to some two dozen other locations across the country. In 2009, it sold its flagship store in the Wandermere shopping center to customers Sam and Kim Hernandez.

The first month was great. The second was fine, too. The third?

“It was just like somebody turned off the light switch,” says Sam Hernandez, who left his job for 13 years as a nursing assistant to run the business.

They stuck it out for a few more months before closing the doors to the store in June that year and putting the equipment into storage.

Still, they didn’t want to give up. The Hernandezes worked with the city to add a commercial kitchen in an addition to their home last year and have reworked the business model.

Now, they’re assembling the meals themselves and delivering them to customers with an eye toward health, special diet considerations and seniors.

They offer free assembly and free delivery for those who order more than $75 worth of entrees. Hernandez says they were also able to reduce prices overall, but use the same beloved Cena recipes.

Meals are still packaged ready for the freezer. Cooks need only thaw the meals in the refrigerator and prepare according to directions on the packaging.

Sam Hernandez says the only changes they’ve made to the entrees have been to substitute Smart Balance for butter, and to use olive oil exclusively instead of an oil blend.

Customers can choose from 11 to 14 different entrées each month. The Hernandezes also tweaked the meal sizes to offer full entrees serving six adults, ranging in price from $22.99 to $24.99; half entrees to serve three for $12.99 to $14.99; or a two-serving entrée for $7.99 to $5.99.

Senior entrees, which serve two, are $5.99 to $7.99 for customers 55 and older.

He’s using his experience as a nurse to help customers choose dinners for their loved ones. Kim Hernandez is a surgical tech at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. Some of the people he now serves are empty nesters, older adults or out-of-town children sending dinners to their aging parents.

Hernandez says they keep in mind both dietary and physical limitations – such as steering people toward dishes that can be prepared even by those navigating with walkers or people other mobility considerations.

The entire ingredient list is posted on the company’s website each month at www.cenatogo.com along with nutrition analysis of each recipe provided by a dietitian at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

They’ll accommodate almost any kind of special request or food preference.

“The customers can really make an informed decision,” Sam Hernandez says. “It gives them 100 percent control.”

Bert Vermeulen, owner of the Easy Meal Prep, a national industry and consulting business, says the changes at Cena have followed national trends.

Vermeulen says the make-ahead meal business model, pioneered by Snohomish, Wash.- based Dream Dinners, grew from less than 20 stores in 2004 to some 1,400 stores nationwide in 2007.

“Then starting in 2007 the recession hit the industry fairly hard. … It has declined to about 500 stores now,” Vermeulen says.

Of the five meal-prep businesses in the Spokane area in 2004, only Cena remains.

The Cena franchise grew to some two dozen stores across the country, but only two are still operating – including Spokane and Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada.

Many of the stores that have survived the lingering downturn changed their business model.

Like Cena, they are offering meals for special diets, focusing on organic foods or other niches, Vermeulen says. Many are now assembling the meals and delivering them, like the Hernandez family.

Vermeulen says he expects the industry to persist, despite the difficulties.

“The concept is still needed and the survivors are starting to do better as the economy turns around,” Vermeulen says.

Sam Hernandez says he’s seen the need for their services and they have been slowly growing since they opened last year with the new model.

They’ve delivered meals to families who have welcomed a new baby, older adults recovering from a hospital stay and even soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

The whole thing has been something of a whirlwind, but Sam Hernandez says the opportunity to work at home has also been a blessing.

In the midst of buying the business, changing it and building a commercial kitchen onto their home, the Hernandezes were married and started a family. Their daughter Olivia is almost 3 and Madison is 10 months old.

Sam Hernandez says he’s enjoyed meeting people and helping their families with ready-made meals.

“Of course it’s still a business,” he says, “but we feel like it is a kind of a public service, too.”

Pasta Primavera with Shrimp

From Cena

1 1/2 pounds 31/40 count shrimp

1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon parsley

1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Juice of 1/4 lemon

Black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/2 cup chopped tomato

1/2 cup green pepper

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup zucchini squash

1/4 cup parmesan cheese

Thaw and drain shrimp.

In a bowl, whisk together wine, garlic, olive oil, parsley, Old Bay seasoning, sea salt, lemon, black pepper and Italian seasoning. Add tomato, pepper, onion and zucchini.

Sauté shrimp in lightly oiled pan on medium high until pink and internal temperature has reached 150 degrees. Add sauce and vegetable mixture and simmer on low for another 5-10 minutes, until heated through. Pour over your favorite pasta or rice and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Yield: 6 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 410 calories, 4 grams fat (2 grams saturated, 9 percent fat calories), 16 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrate, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 125 milligrams sodium.

Pecan-Crusted Honey Chicken

6 (5-ounce) chicken breasts

4 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon cumin

2 big squeezes on honey bear

Juice from 1/4 lemon

In another bowl mix with a spatula:

1/4 cup chopped pecans

1 cup bread crumbs

2 tablespoons whipped butter

2 teaspoons garlic

Thaw chicken in refrigerator.

Mist a baking pan with oil.

Whisk together mustard, cumin, honey and lemon together in a bowl. In another bowl, combine pecans, bread crumbs, butter and garlic.

Dip and coat each chicken breast in the honey/mustard mixture and dredge in pecan and breadcrumb mixture. Place into the pan.

Press remaining pecan mixture onto the top of each chicken breast.

Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 25-35 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.

Yield: 6 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 350 calories, 5 grams fat (2.5 grams saturated, 13 percent fat calories), 35 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrate, 27 milligrams cholesterol, no dietary fiber, 320 milligrams sodium.


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