Despite her love of cooking, Sara Shaunnessey said when she was commuting to and from Manhattan the last thing she wanted to do at the end of the day was grocery shop and then prepare a meal.
When the Woodbridge resident found herself growing tired of traditional take-out—pizza and Chinese food—she began looking for a healthy, home-cooked alternative.
"I started researching it and couldn't find anything out there," Shaunnessey said. "I said, 'I can do it better.'"
In October 2011, the former finance industry executive and her husband, Colin, opened Dinner in a Pinch, located at 1 South Ave. East, in Cranford.
The storefront specializes in hot, fresh and fulfilling family dinners. Meals are typically made for two, four or six adults and each is priced to include two side dishes plus homemade bread. Dinners are ready within 30 to 45 minutes of the order being placed and can be delivered for free to Cranford, Kenilworth, Westfield, Garwood and Clark while delivery to Scotch Plains and Fanwood carries a $2 charge. Meals are also available for take-out and curbside pick-up.
"Basically the idea is that we cook the way you would cook if you were cooking at home," said Shaunnessey. "We use fresh ingredients. Everything we cook, we cook here; we make it from scratch on-site. We don't use preservatives We do small batch cooking. Sometimes we run out of something because we don't have any leftovers and we don't have any waste."
The menu includes comfort food favorites such as pot pies, pork chops and pot roast, with rotating bi-monthly specials like lasagna or slow-cooked glazed ham.
"We're open to taking suggestions from our customers," said Shaunnessey, who added that another bonus to her cooking style is that because everything is made fresh from scratch, it easily lends itself to catering to the dietary restrictions of patrons. "It's very easy for us to do. We definitely have gluten-free, low-salt and low-fat options and try to keep the menu pretty balanced from a nutritional standpoint."
As much as she has loved turning her passion into her career, the self-trained chef who began cooking at age 12 said starting her own business hasn't been without its challenges.
"I was really nervous the first day when we sat here and the phone didn't ring," Shaunnessey recalled. "It's hard because you don't know what to expect. I think the first day we did four orders and called it a win."
Since then, Dinner in a Pinch has built up a steady clientele, with 80 to 85 percent of its customers ordering regularly.
"I love it. It's been hard, but it's not been a bad hard. I really enjoy every day of it so far. I wouldn't change a thing. It's been a lot of fun meeting people. We have people who come in every week and we get to know them and their stories," she said.
One of the biggest hurdles the entrepreneurs have had to overcome is getting people to understand what it is they offer.
"We still have people who call and ask 'Do I have to order it a day in advance?' or 'Once I get it do I have to reheat it?' That has been our biggest struggle because there's nothing out there like us," Shaunnessey explained. "Our competition, if you want to call it that, is really pizza and Chinese food. I think when people see the menu they think, 'There's no way I can get freshly cooked meatloaf in half-an-hour,' but you can. We prep everything as far as we can and then cook it when it's ordered. The process is just the same as you would order a pizza but it's just much higher quality food. We're offering things you can feel good about serving to your family.
"When people realize it's the same as what they'd make at home, they don't feel bad about ordering it. Once people try us and realize what we do and understand it, then they come back."
Dinner in a Pinch also hosts children's birthday parties as well as adult cooking classes. Birth and bereavement dinners can be purchased and set up for just a night or two or for as long as a family might need. All birth and bereavement packages over $100 will receive 15 percent off.
"We really just try to make life easier," Shaunnessey said. "Everybody has to eat dinner and people get tired of trying to figure out what to make and what to do."
For more information, call 908-272-5136 or visit Dinner in a Pinch's website. To view the menu, visit Dinner in a Pinch's website or stop in the 1 South Ave. East location for a menu.