Women in Business: Q&A with Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna, Co-Founders of Dream Dinners

11/11/2013 08:25 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Dream Dinners is recognized as the originator of innovative and convenient dinner assembly stores. Created by working mothers Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna, the Snohomish, Washington-based company was the first to roll out this timesaving concept on a national scale.

Dream Dinners evolved from the homegrown practice of co-founder Stephanie Allen, a working mother who began making fix-and-freeze meals for her family in 1986. By preparing and freezing entrees using fresh raw ingredients, Allen improved on traditional pre-cooked methods, resulting in better tasting meals. When the demand became overwhelming, Allen enlisted the help of long-time friend and experienced business manager Tina Kuna.

The partners hosted the first series of large-scale meal assembly sessions in March 2002, which became the catalyst for opening the first Dream Dinners store three months later.The partners expanded their business model and established a national franchise in June 2003. Allen and Kuna signed 35 new stores in the first six months, selecting from more than 6,800 applications.

How has your life experience made you the leaders you are today?
As women, we've learned to be respectful and thoughtful with people, but that doesn't always mean accommodating them. As with raising our children, there are times we've had to say, "No," because we see the bigger picture of what's in their best interest.

Early in our business we created a Franchise Operations Manual realizing, in order to be successful, we'd have to be consistent. However, as we went along, our owners suggested new ideas and we became flexible and lenient. Over time, that created an array of differences which wasn't working for them or the organization. We've learned that saying, "No" when needed is not being mean but is actually better for the franchise owner. Today, we are confident in our yes's and our no's.

How has your previous employment experience aided your respective positions at Dream Dinners?
We each had completely different careers, Tina in finance and Stephanie in food and sales. I (Stephanie) owned a successful catering business that set me up perfectly to be a leader in the food industry today. I understand the consumer's need for excellence in menu selection and products that satisfy their needs. Tina owned her own bookkeeping and accounting service. Seeing multiple different types of business and the way they were run gave Tina the vision for hiring quality people, striving for excellence and streamlining processes. Both of us together bring talents and experience that have been the building blocks of our success.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
In the beginning, that was very difficult and we didn't have balance. Now that we have grown, we have brought on great people to join our team which releases our time to better balance home and work. We also use Dream Dinners meals regularly which frees up more time to engage in other activities we enjoy.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Dream Dinners?
The highlights definitely have come from the stories our guest have told us! Their lives have been changed by Dream Dinners in some of the most impactful ways we never thought possible. We have story after story from our guests who have lost weight, saved money, seen improvement in their kid's grades, and several have reported saved marriages! One of the most enduring stories comes to mind from an adult daughter who was making dinners every month for her elderly mother. This enabled her mom to keep her independence and remain living in her own home.

What advice can you offer individuals who are seeking to establish their own business?
Work with and hire people who have skills and talents that complement yours. Delegate and release responsibility so you can get a bigger perspective beyond the daily demands of your company, then you will be free to do what you do best - grow your business.

What advice can you offer individuals who are setting up and running a business with a best friend?
Separate your duties and don't get in your friend's way. Always keep your friendship as the priority and the business second. Work hard, be humble and considerate. Out of mutual respect, when we have a conflict or a decision to make, we listen with empathy. That means we listen for the reason behind the other's opinion first. At the end of the day, it's more important to have a glass of wine together and a good visit than stay upset about the day's conflicts.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Trusting their instinct. Women have a strong "gut" feeling about things and if it doesn't feel right, she needs to trust herself. She needs to wait until she has peace of mind before making a decision.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
She has some great insights as to how to not operate in fear. Women can be disingenuous if they work from a place of insecurity.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
As a franchise owner, we are mentors to our franchisee. It's critical to the foundation of our business that franchisees are successful because when they're successful, we all are. At the onset of our business we chose owners that shared our vision of home and family. We provided in-store training, operation manuals and were available by phone whenever they needed help. Today, our mentorship has evolved; we provide trained Home Office leaders to coach our franchise owners in 'Sales as a Service.' The effect of this coaching has produced remarkable results. Together, this September, we achieved the single largest average revenue month per store since as far back as we have records. Our growth run right now is the strongest we have experienced since 2009 with same store sales increases in the past six months that average 5.3% nationwide.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa and Melinda Gates are all great examples of servant leaders. Their life's work has not been about them but about helping others. Because of that, their legacy will continue.

What are your hopes for the future of Dream Dinners?
Women want to nurture their families with homemade meals and connect around the dinner table, but they experience a lot of different barriers in accomplishing this - how to cook, what to fix, time to shop, and energy to prepare it. Yet, we know that when families are gathered around the table for a meal, they experience huge tangible benefits. Their kids become better communicators, students, and their diets become healthier. They are less likely to become overweight or abuse drugs and alcohol. We want to affect our culture for the good so that every family across America benefits from sharing time around a meal. Currently we help create 600-700 thousand servings/month. Imagine if we could double that to over a million servings/month by this time next year. We all win when we invest in the next generation!