Make-a-Meal gets you out of the kitchen, giving you time for family By Becky Harris

Do your "New You" wishes include having more time with the family? Do you want to be a better neighbor and friend?
If the answers are yes, then consider the testimonials from happy customers of Make-a-Meal, the friendly place where cooks daily prepare take-away entrees and extras for hungry and time-stressed folks.
Carla Bentley, who owns the enterprise with husband Sam, of "Sam's Famous Brisket" fame, says her customers become loyal after the first visit.
"If the Mom is late getting off work, the Dad will drop by and pick up supper for the family. One Dad told me that when it's his turn to cook, and we fulfill that obligation, he has time to help the kids with their homework," Carla said.
After he pops the cheesy ham and potatoes into the oven, he has 20 minutes to sit at the table coaching state capitols or multiplication tables and, along the way, getting to know the kids better.
"Some of our mothers used to feel guilty about buying our offerings instead of doing the cooking themselves. But not anymore. They find they can provide a variety of well-prepared, good-tasting suppers and have more time for their families," Carla said.
One of Carla's favorite comments came from a new friend who said Make-a-Meal had made her a better Christian.
"Now that was heartwarming," Carla said. "What she meant was that it was so convenient to pick up a gift of food to deliver to the sick, a new mother, a shut-in or a family that had lost a loved one that she was more likely to help than if she had to prepare the food herself."
Carla and Sam entered the catering business in 1998, operating out of a concession trailer, working festivals. Their specialty at Toad Suck Daze was popcorn chicken.
They moved inside the Old Gin and catered events there for four years, and in 2005 they jumped into the meal-assembly craze that went "gangbusters." Back then, the customer helped prepare meals, perhaps a week's worth, using ingredients and utensils supplied by the business. Their lease at the Old Gin was up in January 2006 and they opened in March 2006 at the present location, 2730 Prince, by PlayWorld.
The new location offered better access and a bank of freezers containing already-prepared entrees and accompaniments. Business grew and expanded to the space next door, affording a place for a lunch with wraps and croissants on the menu.
The offerings have grown as customers have requested their favorites.
"When I started in the catering business I said I'd never make meatloaf, mac and cheese, or cocktail weenies," Carla said.
Today, meatloaf, called "Momma's Best Ever," and macaroni and cheese are among the favorites.
"I still haven't done cocktail weenies," she said.
Customers also have influenced the packaging of the meals. The business began with packages that served three hearty portions. Now there are mini meals for one hungry person and Make-Your-Budget meals that are lower-priced versions of the standards, perhaps using less meat or more rice and pasta, a selection that helps keep costs down a bit, something that is on everybody's mind, Carla said.
Adults with aging parents requested single-serving meals that didn't have to be heated in the oven. So Carla and her team, including manager Chris Jennings, created micro meals that are prepared in five minutes in the microwave, which are a big hit.
Food is a vocation, a calling, a philosophy to Carla and Sam.
"People get so wrapped up in the everyday. Instead of rushing to the store, preparing, and cleaning up and perhaps the mom or dad getting angry or resentful that they have to do this chore, we provide a way to have a little calm in the day, a time to sit down with family. It brings about a new day," Carla said.
One thank-you letter came from a new friend and customer who compared Carla to the heroine of "Chocolat," a story of a woman who transforms her life and the lives around her.
Carla received that letter at the end of a very busy and trying day. She said, "It was like a blessing. It made me realize that I'm in the right place. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."
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