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March 29, 2004

Santa Cruz Sentinel


SANTA CRUZ—Jody Lombardo knows the challenge of balancing family and career, especially when it comes to cooking dinner after a long day at work.

She was once a single mother struggling to meet the demands of her job and to provide her young son with nutritious meals on a limited budget.

At 37, she still juggles a demanding schedule: She works full time at Raytek as a materials planner, and last June, she and her mother, Judy Johnson, launched their business, Fresh Prep Kitchens. The idea: to help busy clients prepare healthy dinners quickly, economically and in bulk.

Fresh Prep Kitchens prepares fresh food in the commercial kitchen space she rents on Fern Street in the Harvey West Industrial Park.

With 14 years at Raytek to her credit, Lombardo wanted to feed her passion for the food industry. The Southern California native previously worked as a caterer and had owned a natural foods business. Later, she considered becoming a personal chef or baking meals for others to take home. Instead, she enlisted the help of her mom, and together they refined a concept, unique to the area and the West Coast, according to Lombardo’s market research.

At Fresh Prep Kitchens, customers (solo or in groups) arrive by appointment and are handed aprons and dish towels as they are guided to the kitchen. There, they find that all the food is prepped and organized at stations for them. They spend an hour or two assembling either six or 12 different menu items that they have selected prior to arrival. (Each menu item is a serving size for four people). The menus, (which recently included portabello mushroom fajitas, twice-baked potatoes, roast chicken and vegetable paella,) are available online, change monthly and reflect a mix of vegetarian, fish, poultry and beef, and one dessert.

High-quality food is the backbone of the business, explained Lombardo, who relies on local suppliers Watsonville Coast Produce, Carmel Meats and Ledyard for canned goods.

The other key ingredient is a broad spectrum of recipes.

“We experiment with family recipes,” said Lombardo, who fell in love with cooking at age 7 while she helped her Italian grandmother. “Grandma Nonnie’s meatloaf and the minestrone soup are favorites at Fresh Prep Kitchens.”

During the session, clients follow the recipes, assemble the meal from raw ingredients, put them in freezer-friendly bags and boxes, then stash them in their own cooler. The entrees are frozen at home until cooked for consumption. At the end of the Fresh Prep session, there is no cleanup for the customer.

“We have couples come in to cook together, seniors, singles,” said Lombardo.

They use the meals to feed families, for parties or potlucks.

“It served the exact purpose I came for,” said June Smith of Capitola, a recent retiree who owned Roudon Smith Winery. “I don’t like to take the time to shop, prep and clean up. In my retirement, I thought I might take cooking lessons, but when I saw this, I thought I could avoid excess work and have well-balanced meals.”

Fresh Prep Kitchens is not a cooking school. Clients are sent home with cooking instructions but not with the recipes.

“We want them to come back,” laughed Lombardo, noting a high number of repeat customers. While she expects her business to turn a profit by buying food wholesale, she tries to keep customer costs down. The price is based on either a 24- or 48-serving plan ($110-$145). The cost of food, which is noted on the Web site, is additional.

Future plans for Fresh Prep Kitchens include offering an all-organic menu and moving to a larger space that is all their own.

Lombardo said partnering with her mom has been rewarding. Johnson manages the legal, accounting and financial elements, while Lombardo handles clients, marketing and food.

The future recipe for the mother-daughter duo involves expansion into Aptos, San Jose and perhaps beyond.

“Our goal was to get people to eat healthy food and get them back to the table to eat together,” said Johnson.

Fresh Prep Kitchens
WHAT: Professional kitchen space, menu, food and assistance provided to Assemble meals to be cooked at home.
Owners: Jody Lombardo, Judy Johnson, founding partners.
Wher: 216-B Fern St., Santa Cruz.
Details: By reservation only.
Cost: Varies according to meal plan and food selection.
Information: 429-1390, www.freshprepkitchens.com

How it works
1. Review the menu online to determine which items to prepare. Menus change monthly.
2. Select a meal plan.
3. Make a reservation online or by phone.
4. At the session, all food, measuring utensils, recipes, assistance and cleanup are provided.
5. Bring your own cooler. You will pack meals in the provided freezer-friendly containers and store them in your own cooler during the session. Clients are supplied cooking instructions.

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