It may look different than years past, but Thanksgiving likely won’t taste different this year. Most of us still plan to celebrate the holiday, and that’s welcome news to the grocers, bakers, farmers and other producers who get the food to our tables.
Still, they find themselves playing a guessing game as to what that means. “People usually are very predictable, but now the sentiment changes week to week,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, a grocery retail expert and president of 210 Analytics. “We know people are going to travel less, and there’s not going to be this massive Thanksgiving.”
In 2020, Thanksgiving is Getting Downsized. But Are the Turkeys?
With fewer families traveling and hosting people from outside their homes, Thanksgiving will be smaller this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the turkeys will be. Last year, the median holiday gathering was about eight people. This year, it’s five, according to a nationwide survey by the IRI Consumer Network.
Though grocers planned for higher demand for smaller birds, a survey by Butterball found that three-quarters of hosts are planning to make the same size turkey as always, or even larger.
“My bet is that people are just so hungry for tradition right now, and a big Thanksgiving turkey feels like an anchoring thing,” says John Peterson, a turkey farmer in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, whose grandfather started raising turkeys in 1939. “Going back to July and August, talking to grocers, most bet there would be more demand for smaller turkeys, but it doesn’t appear to be skewed as dramatically as we imagined.”
His farm slaughtered some birds a bit earlier than normal to fulfill a slight uptick in pre-orders for smaller frozen turkeys, but not much could be done about the size of his fresh turkeys, which make up the bulk of his holiday business. “We order our day-old poults a year in advance to hit the right sizing for Thanksgiving, so we ordered them long before we knew what COVID-19 was.” And those fewer smaller birds likely will sell out early.
Grocery chains also are adapting by pushing bone-in breasts and roasts, plus smaller hams and large chickens. And as the lack of larger gatherings pushes some vegetarians and vegans into hosting and menu planning, meatless options—a trend long before the coronavirus—also are expected to make up bigger share of the market.
Any Way You Slice It, a Small Pie Solution to Thanksgiving 2020
“We figured a lot of people aren’t having 30, 40 people like usual. Instead, they’re having four,” says Alison Ladman, owner of The Crust and Crumb Baking Co. in Concord, New Hampshire. “So with families having tiny gatherings—hopefully—we did tiny pies so people could still have a variety if they wanted to.”
This is the first year her dozen holiday flavors have come in two sizes, the traditional 9-inch and a new 6-inch that serves a good slice to two or three people. Half her orders are for the smaller pies, but customers are ordering more of them. “I know at my Thanksgiving, we want a sliver of this pie and a sliver of that one and a sliver of that one… My family always has a joke that you need one pie per person anyway.”
Getting Thanksgiving To Go
“The running joke is, back in the old days, do you remember when we were a fancy restaurant? Now we’re just kind of rolling with it,” says Erin Miller, owner of Urban Hearth in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her dining room previously sat only 24 guests for a prix fixe tasting menu with one seating a night. But like many restaurants, hers began selling prepared takeout meals earlier this year.
Holiday-specific meals in particular have helped keep the lights on. “The challenge is to figure out how to do what we do, while having to figure out how to crate a memorable turkey experience that can travel or be reheated,” says Miller, who also sold Election Day “care packages” for couples with beef bourgingon pot pies and cocktails.
For Thanksgiving, the menu includes cider and sage brined turkey, bread stuffing with fennel and apple, roasted root vegetables with chermoula, biscuits and more. “It’s definitely going to be interesting. It’s like doing Thanksgiving for 300 people.”
To give their employees a break, some supermarkets that usually open on Thanksgiving aren’t this year, and a few chains are closing completely on Black Friday.
“There’s an idea catching on about ‘supermarket superheroes.’ The workers are people who have been through it all, like nurses and doctors,” says Roerink, the grocery expert. “It’s a big change in the mindset. Typically, stores operate under, ‘The customer is king.’ But early on they realized, ‘Yes, the customer is still king, but we need to take care of our employees first.’”
The Gelson’s chain of 27 stores in Southern California is among those reducing hours on Thanksgiving and closing on Black Friday to give employees a break, says Kristin Stahr, store director of the Rancho Mirage location. “Obviously, no one is traveling, but closing Friday after the holiday means we can all have a day to just relax.”
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Photo: From top left: Kristin Stahr, Alison Ladman, John Peterson, Erin Miller