Dream Dinners co-founders Stephanie Allen (center) and Tina Kuna opened their first shop in Everett in 2002 and have since grown to 87 locations in 25 different states. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Dream Dinners co-founders Stephanie Allen (center) and Tina Kuna opened their first shop in Everett in 2002 and have since grown to 87 locations in 25 different states. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

After retrenching, Snohomish-based Dream Dinners expects growth

Meals were a family affair during Stephanie Allen’s childhood.

By age 11, Allen organized Tuesday night dinners and helped her kindergartner brother create menus of PB&J and mac and cheese. As a teenager, she had a burgeoning recipe collection and culinary dreams.

“I wanted to raise my kids at the dinner table, too,” says Allen, a Snohomish County native. “It’s a time to sit down, eat and talk about everyone’s day. It’s where kids can learn and connect with their family.”

That family focus translated into a business empire. Allen and her friend, Tina Kuna, co-founded Snohomish-based Dream Dinners in 2002. Clients create meals in bulk to freeze for easy, future use. Recipes are provided to ensure successful execution and clients use Dream Dinner’s fully-stocked kitchens for accessible, one-stop preparation.

Allen cooked up the idea in her own kitchen. In the 1980s, she owned a catering business which sometimes precluded making dinner for her own family. She began fixing and freezing meals in advance. Soon, friends and acquaintances were clamoring to participate and it became clear a larger need existed.

“I didn’t think about it as a business until after 9/11. That was really the catalyst for Dream Dinners,” Allen says.

Corporate catering clients declined that year, but interest in spending time with family surged.

“People came out of the woodwork wanting a home-cooked dinner again. After that time of devastation for our country, I think people naturally felt like putting a higher importance on family,” Allen says.

The Dream Dinners model launched a new industry and is still headquartered in Snohomish County. CEO Darin Leonard estimates 2016 revenues at $38 million. Approximately 600,000 dinners are produced monthly across 86 locations nationally. Washington is home to four sites. Systemwide, employees number 750 with more than 30 in Snohomish County.

“We have employees who’ve been with us pretty much since Day One,” says Kuna. “Everyone works hard for the mission and vision of the company.”

In addition to convenience and bringing families together, Kuna views Dream Dinners as a teaching opportunity.

“Many schools can’t afford to teach home economics in junior or high school anymore. Many children of this generation don’t know how to cook. Dream Dinners is an opportunity for kids to take those first steps of reading cooking instructions and doing basic preparation,” says Kuna, herself a mother of three.

Allen and Kuna were previously coworkers and roommates. Kuna adopted Allen’s assemble-and-freeze method long before Dream Dinners formerly launched. Both shared entrepreneurial aspirations.

As Allen’s culinary concept grew, she called upon Kuna to provide business acumen during the company’s early years. Leonard, former president/CEO of Maytag Stores, was hired as CEO of Dream Dinners in 2008.

“My fundamental position is that we’re not a food company,” says Leonard, who grew up in Bothell. “Our mission is really and simply to help grow great kids. The financial performance and success comes from having that great purpose.”

That sense of purpose helped Dream Dinners evolve through a changing business landscape. At its peak, there were more than 200 locations. However, Dream Dinners was hurt by the general economic downturn and what Leonard cites as a “litigious season” spanning 2008 to 2010.

Franchisee lawsuits were settled out of court. According to Leonard, Dream Dinners did not pay any consideration, reduce any indebtedness, waive enforcement of any of their rights or take any actions adverse to their interests.

The end result is a company that is stronger and on the rise.

“This period of turmoil forced us to focus on improving processes and retention during a downturn in the economy. We made the unprecedented decision to shut down franchise sales while we focused on improving unit-level economics for our current franchisees,” Leonard says.

Dream Dinners has enjoyed eight consecutive years of sales growth and a 55.6 percent increase in average monthly sales per store since the tumultuous years following 2008.

Other leaps forward include the launch this year of ShareCrate. A spinoff of Dream Dinners, clients can order pre-assembled meals to be sent as gifts. True to the DNA of the company, the idea grew organically from experience. Allen, Kuna and Leonard were all inspired by personal experiences of wanting to send loved ones food either in times of celebration or distress.

“I’m a breast cancer survivor myself. When I was in chemo, people showed up on the doorstep with food for me and my family,” Kuna says. “I received so many blessings from people sharing food. It’s a great opportunity to show people you care and that’s the whole purpose of ShareCrate.”

Company expectations for ShareCrate are high, based on customer surveys. According to Leonard, even more growth is ahead. Dream Dinners is currently in the process of raising $35 million in equity for a new, yet-to-be-announced business venture.

“If we come anywhere close to where our current plans take us, we would become one of the most significant employers in Snohomish County,” Leonard predicts.

The company remains rooted in Snohomish County. Allen and Kuna both credit community support for Dream Dinners’ meteoric rise. Local banking institutions provided financing for the then-unproven concept.

Most importantly, Allen and Kuna cite individual support as being the company’s essential backbone. Nearly 15 years later, 44 individuals remain loyal customers since signing up the very first month.

”Snohomish County is a connected community of moms and I watched it grow so naturally. We were all excited and wanted to participate. It became clear that it was going to be something really important,” says Peggy Sue Panko.

Panko was involved from the start, even driving with Allen to haul supplies during the early days. Panko is a fourth-grade teacher at Snohomish’s Riverview Elementary School. Allen’s children were in her class.

“It grew very organically starting with one friend and then spreading through word of mouth. The business opportunity really came from Stephanie problem solving how to help others,” Panko says.

At its heart, the dream of Dream Dinners is connecting people through food. Allen’s company role remains centered on recipe development while Kuna focuses on Dream Dinners’ nonprofit endeavors.

“The Snohomish area is pretty tight knit and a very active family center,” Allen says. “Everyone knows pretty much everybody in town or at least through a friend. We feel it’s important to be here because it’s our community and we always want to serve that first.”

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