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Imagine if you didn’t have to cook dinner every night. You wouldn’t be eating out — that would be much too expensive — but just imagine if the ingredients were already prepared, and you just had to heat a few things up to make a home-cooked dinner for you and your family. No shopping, no chopping. Magic, right?

This magic is the product and service of Dinner Studio, a unique, local business that delivers inexpensive, fresh (or frozen, your choice) meals right to your door, ready to cook for dinner tonight. TV dinners in plastic trays these are not — homemade, family-friendly recipes from Gloria Otten, once a well-known executive chef, fill out a long menu that changes every month.

The Beginning

Dinner Studio started in 2003, riding the wave of “learn to cook” kitchens: We give you a shopping list, you bring the ingredients to suit your taste, and you come to our professional kitchen where we help you make enough meals for a week. Dinner Studio had three kitchens throughout San Diego county where people could come, cook, eat, and learn.

Josh Otten, Gloria’s stepson, and manager of Dinner Studio’s business-end, admitted that this was a tough start for the company. Costs for three locations were draining away what little profit the company generated, in what was already a low-margin business.

“We had a few things that we, ourselves, prepared in the kitchens, and people began coming in asking just to buy that,” instead of making their own meals, Josh said.

Josh soon realized they were in the wrong business.

Gloria and Josh shut down all but one kitchen in central San Diego, and took a hard look at the business. People wanted prepared meals. They didn’t want to cook. They wanted good food — not fast food — delivered right to their door.

Plus, customers wanted to order online. Their old website, mostly a brochure for the old business, wasn’t up to the task.

“What we used to do in person — taking payment, answering questions,” Gloria said, “was so time consuming that customer service was really all we had time for. When we did have time to work on our old website, we would have to relay the information to our webmaster and hope he could find the time to put it up for us. Frankly, the time we lost with our old system leaves that entire experience as something of a blur.”

The New Website

In 2009, Honest Code designed, built, and launched a two-part website for Dinner Studio — the first part was a WordPress-driven front-end where Josh could make changes to any part of the site he wanted. The second part was a PHP and MySQL back end — developed along with High Class Software — to handle payment, coupons, discounts, delivery, and pickup.

With the new website, Gloria said, “it was almost like starting a new business.”

“The ability to take payment over the internet has been huge for us, as has the ability to post pictures, videos, redeem coupons, and change content … all within minutes. Plus, it can all be done by us! Your work makes us look great!”

For Dinner Studio, information is power, too. “The ability to utilize the data collected by our website in real time (and again, without waiting on a third party) has also been huge,” Gloria said.

“It has allowed us to make smarter, quicker decisions that affect how we market and where we do business. What used to take two people all day to accomplish can easily be done by one now — and in less than half the time.”

Users appreciate the ease-of-use, too. “It’s so easy to use,” one customer said. “Especially for someone like me, who’s not too computer-savvy.”

Looking Ahead

Honest Code still maintains and updates the site today, recently improving coupon handling, and adding meal options as well.

Perhaps most importantly, their new website has allowed Dinner Studio to grow. The last few years haven’t exactly been kind to small businesses like Gloria and Josh’s. “With the economy the way it is, it was easy to miss the good things going on last year,” Gloria said.

“The numbers tell us we grew by 7.5%, but the other benefits of this website go way beyond sales.” Compared to the possibility of not being in business at all, she says she much prefers the modest growth.

“If I had to pick the one best asset of this website it would have to be the time it saves us,” she says. “The ability to aggressively work on fine-tuning our business instead of just barely surviving has meant the difference between modest growth in a recession and not surviving the recession.”

“It has also allowed us the time to resume some sort of life outside of our business, which for me has really been one of the greatest gifts.”

Posted July 5, 2011. Tagged: , , ,


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