MAKing It: This Alaska business answers the age-old question: ‘What’s for dinner?’

SPONSORED: Alaska Dinner Factory has survived the boom and bust of its industry, a huge shift in food trends, a change in business model, and now a pandemic. And it all started with a friendly phone call.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

It all began when Linnea Cummings was chatting with a friend who had moved out of state.

As they talked casually about the items on their respective to-do lists, Cummings’ friend mentioned that she planned to visit a business in her area where she could prep her family’s meals for the month. The business provided recipes, a prep kitchen, equipment and ready-to-assemble ingredients, and she could make what she wanted and take it home to freeze and cook throughout the month.

“I thought, ‘I’m a busy person -- I would totally use something like that,’” Cummings said. “‘Why don’t we have that here?’”

And then:

“‘Why couldn’t I do that here?’”

Soon Cummings had thrown herself into researching meal assembly businesses, traveling Outside to visit a dozen different kitchens to see how they ran.

“The next thing I know, I’m writing a business plan and signing a lease and opening up a business,” Cummings said.

Alaska Dinner Factory opened its storefront near Lake Otis and Dowling in 2006.

A business model’s boom and bust

From the beginning, Alaska Dinner Factory has had a simple mission: Bring families back to the dinner table -- and make it easy for them to get there. For the first 10 years, Cummings’ business model was built around hosting “sessions.” Customers could book a session to come in, maybe for a date night or girls’ night, and assemble their choice of meals from that month’s selection of 14 menu items.

At the time, meal assembly kitchens were a hot business trend across the nation. When Alaska Dinner Factory opened, it was one of about 1,300 such kitchens operating in the U.S., according to Cummings. Of those, most were franchises of national or regional chains. Only a handful were independent, the path Cummings chose.

“I had briefly looked at perhaps doing a franchise, but I didn’t like the idea of sending a royalty outside of the state, and I didn’t like the idea of not being able to choose my own recipes and my own ingredients,” she said.

Alaska Dinner Factory sessions provided a fun and novel way to prepare make-ahead meals, although over time, customers tended to drop off -- and in 2008, the entire meal assembly industry, which had been booming just a year or two before, began to crumble.

“I found that customers really liked coming in,” Cummings said. “But then, just like anything else, they would do it a handful of times and then it just became another chore that they had to do.”

Following the 2008 recession, the meal prep industry re-emerged in a different form: Meal kit services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh that deliver recipes and raw ingredients for customers to cook at home (and that often don’t ship to Alaska). So in 2012, Alaska Dinner Factory introduced Delivery Club, its own twist on meal kits. For $195 per month, members receive six large or 12 small pre-assembled meals they can freeze until ready to be eaten.

“We take it a step further (than a meal kit),” Cummings said. “We actually pre-assemble the dinners themselves. It’s just a big time-saver.”

Delivery Club meals require almost no prep work; for example, vegetables arrive already chopped.

“On Sundays, I go to the deep freeze, I pull out and transfer three or four things into the refrigerator, and when I get home at night, they are thawed, easy to cook,” Cummings said. Depending on the selection, meals are cooked on the stovetop, in the oven or slow cooker -- or, in summer, on the grill -- in between 10 and 30 minutes.

Growth, change and a new kitchen

A few years after Delivery Club launched, Cummings rolled out Alaska Fresh, which delivers single-serving, pre-cooked microwaveable meals for seniors. By that point, Alaska Dinner Factory had begun to outgrow the small kitchen in its 2,000-square-foot storefront.

“I knew I was either going to have to expand or move to a different location,” Cummings said.

She chose expansion, and for that she needed a loan. She turned to First National Bank Alaska.

When she first started the business, Cummings found that not every bank believed her business model could work. She chose First National Bank Alaska largely because when she met with a banker there, her idea for Alaska Dinner Factory was received with encouragement rather than skepticism. The bank’s local roots were also very important to her.

“No question, the reason why I initially went with them is because they were a local bank,” Cummings said. She uses local suppliers whenever possible -- businesses like Mr. Prime Beef, 10th and M Seafoods, Taco Loco, Linford of Alaska and local Mat-Su farmers. “First National just fit right in there.”

With the funding secured to remodel her kitchen, Cummings was able to reconfigure the business to focus on deliveries. (Customers can still drop by and pick up single meals to take home, even if they don’t belong to the Delivery Club.) As the new model grew in popularity, Cummings eventually made the “painful” decision to eliminate sessions and pivot to all delivery.

“I penciled it out, and sessions weren’t doing as well as Delivery Club was,” she said.

The move away from customer assembly might have been a tough call, but it was a boom for the bottom line, freeing the business to expand its service area throughout Anchorage and all the way up to Wasilla.

“It allowed for business growth,” Cummings said. “We were able to service more families and employ more people. We definitely saw a significant upswing in revenue once (First National) gave me a loan.”

Two other meal assembly kitchens opened in Anchorage within six weeks of Alaska Dinner Factory, both franchises. Neither is still in operation. Cummings attributes her success in part to the fact that she hired a local marketer who made sure to amplify the message that Alaska Dinner Factory is locally owned.

“People really gravitate toward that message, that story,” she said.

Learning to build a business

Often people assume that because Cummings owns a food business, she started out as a chef. But in fact, her professional background is in road construction administration. And believe it or not, that experience was incredibly helpful as she began to venture into entrepreneurship.

“Running a business was similar to running a road project,” she said. “It was all about schedules and budgets and getting it all to line up.”

For her first year, Cummings bought 150 recipes from an independent meal assembly kitchen in Iowa so she could focus on learning to run the business. Once she got her legs under her, she started to develop her own recipes, drawing inspiration from magazines, TV shows, customer feedback and employee contests.

“It’s fun because the employees come up with the recipe ideas and then they make them at the store together and we have lunch together,” she said. The staff votes on their favorites, and there are prizes for the winners.

Her staff has also helped Cummings find some work-life balance. In the early years, she spent 14-hour days in the kitchen. Now that she’s more established, she has a manager supervising her employees -- about 10 of them -- while Cummings handles the behind-the-scenes aspects from her home office. These days, she comes into the kitchen two or three times a week, and she also drives the Saturday Delivery Club route to Eagle River and the Mat-Su.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Cummings’ first concern was for her staff -- would she be able to support them? Once it became clear that Alaska Dinner Factory would be able to stay open as an essential business, she said the team pulled together to keep things running safely. She has stressed the importance of social distancing and taking hunker down orders seriously with her staff.

“They understood that if they didn’t comply, it could jeopardize our operation and all of their employment,” Cummings said. “They also at the same time felt this tremendous pride that they were supplying the community with meals. They all understand the impact of our mission to get families back to the dinner table.”

Next year, Alaska Dinner Factory, which started as an offhand conversation with a friend, will celebrate 15 years working to bring that mission to life.

“It just blows my mind,” Cummings said. “In the beginning it was so hard that I didn’t know if I’d make it through year two or three. Now we really are one of those longtime Alaskan companies that I dreamed of being.”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to support Alaskans by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

This article was produced by the creative services department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.