Many people associate the name chop shop with the back alley garage where stolen cars are "chopped" into parts for resale until the scofflaws' gooses are cooked, so to speak, by the local gendarmes. The Chop Shop in Birmingham, however, is one location of many that allow cooks and non-cooks who want to serve homemade meals to their families to prepare either six or 10 meals, six servings of each, in a two-hour session, without soiling a single pot or pan that they need to bother cleaning. There are several kitchens of this type opening across the country. A list of them can be found at easymealprep.com.
Metro Times: The decor here is kind of old-fashioned kitschy, but the recipes are more contemporary. How do you reconcile the two?
Jane Bonanata: We have attempted to create an ambience that makes you feel like the days when it was no problem for Mom to put a home-cooked dinner on the table. We know that that was a fallacy even in the '50s. We use contemporary recipes that will bring people to the table, that everyone will enjoy.
MT: Is price the biggest draw?
Bonanata: The big reason we are here is that families need to eat together, to share delicious and nutritious meals that don't take forever to prepare. So they spend a couple hours here and they are set for several weeks. Realistically, do families sit down together every night? No, but three or four times a week that they can do that, they are ready to go. It's also a very inexpensive way to feed your family. The servings cost about $3.50 to $5 each. If the food doesn't taste good, people will not come back, and we are getting a lot of repeat business. We offer a "frequent chopper" card. You get a stamp with each visit. Ten stamps get you a free session. We make it easy to cook at home.
MT: Are you teaching people to cook?
Bonanata: Sometimes we have people who don't cook at all. We say that as long as you can read, you can cook. It's like watching The Today Show. You see a famous chef put something together in 90 seconds. How can they do that? It's because somebody has prepped it for them. The ingredients are all there in exactly the amounts they need and they just have to throw them together. That is how we do it here. We prep chop all of the ingredients for them. So all they have to do is put everything together according to our recipes. Then they package them for freezing and take them home uncooked. Some people are great cooks, but come here to socialize or are looking for a fast way to get meals on the table. They might ask for different ingredients to customize the recipes to their taste. We recently had 18 doctors who were brought as guests by a pharmaceutical rep. Not only did they have a great time they did drink a little wine but they are all working women who were able to take home several meals.
MT: Where do the recipes come from?
Bonanata: Some of them are my mom's, some are from magazines and cookbooks, some are from the Internet. They are all tested by our staff. The menus change monthly. Also, we will customize a menu for a group. We have had a group from a magazine that wanted us to use their recipes and have their advertising customers put together the meals. We have a registered dietitian who goes through all of our recipes and analyzes the nutritional values for us.
MT: How long have you been at it?
Bonanata: We were licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in November of 2004. I called us retail food preparation. They call it limited wholesale food processor.
MT: What got you started in this business?
Bonanata: I was in a food co-op. Six working moms got together occasionally to prepare meals for our families. We rented a church kitchen and had started making meals there. We thought about turning it into a business. In the due diligence process, we heard about a place in Seattle that was doing what we were planning, so I flew out there to check it out. They asked if we wanted a franchise, but I decided to do something on my own. It was a great decision.
MT: What food trends are influencing your menus?
Bonanata: We throw in some ethnic recipes from time to time. Check our menus online to get an idea. We use fresh herbs whenever we can every month. We try to use locally produced products. In the summer, many of our recipes like our salmon with sweet ginger soy glaze and our Italian beef kebabs are ready for the grill. About 70 percent of our summer recipes are chosen with grilling in mind.
The Chop Shop is located at 2219 Cole St., Birmingham; 248-594-2210. A six-entrée session is $135; a 10-entrée session is $200. For more information, see chopshopkitchens.com.
Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]