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Web Feature

UC Berkeley Web Feature

MBA student Rose Duignan just wants to put dinner on your table

– Two of her three kids are all grown up now, but P. Rose Duignan remembers too well what it was like juggling domestic responsibilities with her full-time job as head of marketing for Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas's special-effects firm.

"I felt guilty all the time," says Duignan, an almost absurdly energetic redhead with a tiny piercing in her nose. "I'd feed them macaroni and cheese, quesadillas, even pancakes for dinner - over and over. I was doing the best I could, but I knew it wasn't great." She fantasized about being able to drop off empty pots and pans with her kids at daycare that would magically be filled with a nutritious, ready-to-heat dinner when she returned at the end of the day.

Now 54, Duignan is using UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business as a laboratory to turn a version of that dream into reality for other busy families. Despite being only in the middle of the demanding MBA program, on May 1 she became a co-owner of the Dinner Source, a "dinner-assembly" company located in a nondescript warehouse block in Emeryville, CA.

An entrée into the business

Duignan was so eager to learn whether meal outsourcing was a viable business model that she took the Entrepreneurship 295A class ahead of schedule, choosing as her case study Kim Cartmill, Dinner Source founder and president. Before she had even finished interviewing Cartmill about his business, she was peppering him with marketing ideas in her irrepressible, mile-a-minute way. "I told him he should hang out with samples at sports fields, where he could catch a rotating bunch of harried parents, and BART stations at rush hour," she recalls. Cartmill wanted to offer her a job as a marketing consultant, but "I said he couldn't afford me," Duignan jokes.

Instead, he offered her a share in the company. At first she demurred, thinking about how much she had left to learn in the MBA program. And then Paul Rogers, one of the Haas lecturers from whom Duignan was taking the entrepreneurship class, was fatally stabbed to death in a bizarre attack.

"It was a terrible thing, what happened to him." She shakes her head at the memory. "For me, it was a wake-up call that we should do what we want now, because life is short. So I decided I had to grab this opportunity with both hands."

Duignan with the Dinner Source butcher in the kitchen, preparing ingredients for the evening's "assemblers."

Many of Duignan's customers like to turn the meal-station area into a dinner-making party with friends.

Fancy and fresh, not frozen and fake

Here's how it works. The Dinner Source offers a menu of 15 or so entrees each week. Customers specify which dishes they want, choosing 4 to 12 that they will prepare in the Emeryville kitchen on an evening or weekend day of their choosing.

When they arrive, they're treated like chefs at a well-run restaurant: several gleaming stations have been set up, with all the ingredients for each dish chopped, sliced, and ready to mix together following a posted recipe. While listening to music and drinking wine with their friends as they "cook," Dinner Source's customers - most, but not all of them, women - can put together several ready-to-heat meals in just a two-hour session. The meals serve 4 to 6 people at an average cost of $4 per serving.

Best of all? No dish washing. Dinner Source employees handle all the cleanup.

Such businesses have popped up all over America - 700 of them to date, about half of them franchises of Dream Dinners or Super Suppers - but they've made few inroads into the Bay Area. Who in the food-snob capital of the United States wants to assemble tuna casserole? Not Duignan or Cartmill, that's for sure. Which is why their menu options consist of restaurant-worthy dishes such as "Salmon in Puff Pastry" and "Saag and Channa Masala with a Cashew Biryani" (that's an Indian spinach and garbanzo bean curry). Not a single one calls for cream-of-mushroom soup.

Duignan hopes to set Dinner Source apart from the pack not just with fancy recipes, but with the quality of the ingredients. All the produce is bought at Berkeley Bowl or from farmers' markets shortly before being prepped. "We use high-quality products and natural poultry and meats," says Duignan. "This is really fresh, tasty food, not institutional. We don't open a can and call it vegetables."

Soon, Dinner Source will offer another option. For a bit more money, about $7 per portion, busy customers can order preassembled meals for delivery, available on a same-day basis via an "SOS button" on the Dinner Source's website.

Resurrecting dinnertime rituals

Duignan says the Dinner Source is not aiming to replace eating out, or even ordering takeout from restaurants. "We're trying to provide a healthier alternative to that burrito you pick up or pizza you order in desperation at 6 o'clock," she explains. "Food is love. It's in our DNA to take care of our families, and one of the ways we do that is through providing healthy, delicious meals."

For Duignan, it's not just about nutrition, but about fostering good family habits that, among other things, have been shown to have positive effects on children's development. "One of my greatest memories is sitting down to dinner with my family, which doesn't happen nearly as much anymore," she says. "There was a Harvard study that showed that the simple act of sitting down together over a meal as a family meant not just better nutrition, but better grades for children. Eating is what civilization is based on."

'I joke that I want to provide families with everything that Mom used to do except sex. You know, arrange for someone trustworthy to be at your home to let the cable repairman in, to do yard work, even send out your Christmas cards. You can hand off whatever you don't want to do or don't have time to do.'
-P. Rose Duignan

When Duignan gets an idea in her head, she doesn't give up easily. At Industrial Light & Magic, she saw a need for on-site childcare, and persuaded the company to back the development of one financially. She took charge of getting it up and running. And on New Year's Day, 2005, she was spending the day in bed, "just lounging and thinking here I am in my early 50s, my marriage of 32 years had just ended. What do I want to do with my life?" she recalls cheerfully. "For some reason I envisioned myself on a plane to Hong Kong with a great hairdo and an expensive watch. And I thought, how do I make this happen? I need to get an MBA. And I filled out my business-school applications that day," and started class a few weeks later. She will finish the program this December.

Duignan says her classmates at Haas are very supportive of her business. "I've used Dinner Source as a case model in practically every class — in operations management, we figured out how many meals we could serve. In another, my classmates helped do a competitive analysis of the industry and this firm. And for new product marketing, guess which product we're working on?"

Right now the Dinner Source has 800 registered users buying around 400 meals a month. Duignan would like to double those numbers, and she has quite a few ideas on how to achieve that. In addition to hanging out at soccer fields and BART stations with her cooler, she's been encouraging her MBA classmates to bring her into their full-time jobs for tastings.

So even though she's only officially been a part of Dinner Source for less than two months, when Duignan starts talking about what she calls "My Grand Plan" for the company, one would be wise not to doubt her. Once the business is running at full steam, with lots of customers for the pre-assembled meals, she and Cartmill intend to bring in at-risk local women, from domestic-violence and homeless shelters, and train them as sous chefs. Until then, they're going to earmark a portion of profits to local charities such as Friends of Faith Fancher, an Oakland breast-cancer support group, and the Lincoln Child Center.

Ultimately, Duignan sees The Dinner Source as a provider of family "concierge services" - all the chores that busy couples end up letting slip through the cracks. "I joke that I want to provide families with everything that Mom used to do except sex," says Duignan with a wink. "You know, arrange for someone trustworthy to be at your home to let the cable repairman in, to do yard work, even send out your Christmas cards. You can hand off whatever you don't want to do or don't have time to do."

While there's definitely money to be made in offering such services, Duignan is not out to get rich. One of the things that drew her to Berkeley and the Haas School of Business, she explains, was the school's emphasis on corporate social responsibility.

"For me, it's about giving back," she says, describing a poll at the beginning of the MBA program that asked how many students hoped to make a lot of money (very few hands went up) and how many hoped to make a difference (almost everyone). "As much as I enjoyed working in the visual-effects field, entertaining people is not the same as feeding them. Helping busy, exhausted parents is so satisfying to me."