Sometimes inspiration comes from strange places. When Spencer Newman had to quickly choose a name last summer for the business he was starting, his toddler daughter happened to be listening to the children's song "Hot Potato." And so Hot Potato Concepts of Vermont was born, even though there's not a single spud in the Market Stand Family Meal Kits produced by his fledgling enterprise.
The new endeavor takes the former owner of Burlington's Adventurous Traveler Bookstore in a different direction. A few months ago Newman, 35, and two partners began turning out Chicken Risotto and Beef Picadillo, which comes with corn tortillas and "tomato mole" -- a custom-made Mexican sauce pronounced mole-ay. Their boxed meal kits are frozen, but not premixed like heat-and-serve suppers for the microwave or frying pan. Hot Potato ingredients, packaged in separate plastic bags, must be added in one by one during the 20 minutes it takes to cook each dish.
Preparation of the Risotto, for example, begins with heating a shallot-and-garlic blend in a large skillet with a tablespoon of oil -- not included in the package. Then comes the seasoned long-grain rice, followed by the precooked white chicken and the veggies: peas and matchstick carrots. The final flourish is the Parmesan blend and lemon-herb butter. In less time than it takes to watch the evening news, a fairly fuss-free feast is ready. The 29-ounce box of Chicken Risotto and the 40-ounce box of Beef Picadillo each provide three adult servings. They cost $12.95 apiece.
Hot Potato Concepts has already attracted a loyal following among the 35 Vermont and New Hampshire stores that have carried the Market Stand brand since mid-March. "It's nice for us to deal with people who've really done their homework," suggests Brad Miller, co-owner of the Shelburne Supermarket. Aaron Miller of the Richmond Corner Store offers a gourmet's perspective: "I'm a chef by trade, and what we call the mise-en-place -- to put in place -- is right there in this product."
Newman's entrepreneurial mise-en-place stems from the notion that a source of "stress for working people is what to make for dinner," he says. "It seemed to me there had to be a better way."
SEVEN DAYS: Were you a business major in college?
SPENCER NEWMAN: American studies. I was a 1990 graduate of Tufts University. My wife Karen and I love the outdoors, so moving to Vermont seemed perfect for us. I got a job with Peregrine Outfitters in Williston that gave me warehouse, sales and purchasing responsibilities. They distribute outdoor accessories, but I started to buy books for them.
SD: How long did that gig last?
SN: Three years. In 1994 I founded Adventurous Traveler, a catalog and Internet source for hard-to-find books, maps, CD-ROMS, videos and posters. It was out of my house at first and then grew to almost 40 employees. But the company needed additional capital to grow, so I knew the best thing was to sell it -- which I did in 2000.
SD: What next?
SN: I had a great opportunity to work for Vermont Teddy Bear, which was launching a division called Send America. We put out a catalog for crafts and specialty foods. It morphed into TastyGram, an online-only service for things like cheesecakes and chocolates. That never really took off, but I was introduced to the food industry.
SD: And that led you to brainstorm Market Stand Family Meal Kits?
SN: Yes. The idea came to me in the spring of 2003, and it was falling into place by mid-fall. I did a lot of research, buying every heat-and-serve product out there. I found that the quality was poor, the quantity was low, and it sure didn't feel homemade. I wanted something sold in a freezer case that would be like cooking from scratch, creating great smells in the kitchen, but not so time-consuming. And I talked with Jim Romanoff, associate editor of Eating Well magazine in Charlotte, and Susan Buchanan, the recipe tester there. They came aboard as founders of Hot Potato Concepts.
SD: What was the biggest challenge?
SN: I had underestimated the complexity. The actual process of engineering the components is really difficult because we wanted to make a product so great that you can't screw it up. We tested the meal kits in at least 15 home kitchens, which allowed us to tweak things a bit. We won't put a product on the market unless it's been through the wringer.
SD: Can you give an example of the tweaking?
SN: We were told that there wasn't enough seasoning in the risotto, for instance.
SD: The Risotto and the Picadillo are certainly delicious, but how do they fare in terms of nutrition?
SN: These are really healthy meals, all natural, with no preservatives. There's nothing else available with this quality, or that requires such active participation by the people who buy it. Our meat and chicken arrive fresh, then get cut, precooked and frozen at the Custom Food Products plant in Middlebury. We're USDA inspected and approved.
SD: How do you get the word out?
SN: We run a little advertising in local newspapers and receive a lot of great feedback by doing in-store demonstrations. We've handed out about 2500 samples, in small cups, of the both the chicken and beef meal kits. The reaction we often get is, "I can't believe this was frozen."
SD: It seems fresh?
SN: Yeah. We've also learned the importance of kids in family meal planning. At our demonstrations, parents say: "If Johnny likes this, I'm making it for dinner." And Johnny usually likes it.
SD: Will you add other items to the product line?
SN: Absolutely. We've already developed Chicken Chow Fun, which is a Chinese stir-fry with rice noodles. That should be out within two months. We envision eventually having six to 10 types, including an organic vegetarian dish and one that's low-carb, low-fat.
SD: What will success look like for Hot Potato?
SN: This is a revolutionary product that's so different from what anybody else does. We offer good, tasty, wholesome, 20-minute meals. To me, that's a home run.