Yams to go. Or a Thanksgiving lobster? COVID-19 will transform holiday meals.
CHICAGO — Leslie Highberger usually celebrates Thanksgiving with her husband's extended family, at a different destination each year. Last year they all met in Naples, Florida. Twenty people gathered for the fall feast.
This year there will be no flying or large gatherings as COVID-19 cases rise and fears of spreading the virus to loved ones cloud the holiday. Highberger, 30, and her husband plan to have two Thanksgivings close to home, each with about six people. One dinner will be with her husband's father in Wisconsin and the second with her parents in the Chicago suburbs.
"They will still want to do the whole turkey thing to make it feel like a traditional Thanksgiving," said the Roscoe Village resident. "It will be a lot of food."
As families grapple with how to spend Thanksgiving in the midst of a pandemic, many are planning for smaller soirees.
Just 29% of consumers said they plan to host or attend a Thanksgiving meal with family they don't live with this season, down from 48% last year, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI. More than a third said they will prepare a meal just for themselves or their household, up from 27% last year. A median of five people will attend, while last year it was eight.
Food businesses are scrambling to guess what that downsizing means for dinner tables on what is traditionally the biggest eating event of the year.
Farmers face higher demand for smaller turkeys. High-end restaurants are introducing Thanksgiving feasts to go. Grocers are keeping lobster at the ready in case the unusual year elicits unusual ideas for main courses.
The more intimate affairs don't portend lower sales. In fact, Thanksgiving 2020 — or Zoomsgiving, for those making it virtual — is likely to be bountiful for the food industry as smaller, more dispersed gatherings translate to more meals overall.
Orders for Thanksgiving-related items are double what they normally are at Irv and Shelly's Fresh Picks, a home delivery service of fresh food that sources directly from local farmers, said co-owner Irv Cernauskas.
It is offering 4-pound boneless turkey breasts, which serve six people, to cater to smaller tables. Sales of smaller turkeys and boneless turkey breasts have doubled, while sales of large 25-pound turkeys are down 25%, Cernauskas said.
The holiday demand comes amid a banner year for the Niles-based business. It saw so many new customers looking for alternative ways to buy food when grocery shelves were wiped clean during the early days of pandemic that it had to shut off registration for a few weeks. Now those customers are continuing to favor the direct-to-consumer model for their holiday food shopping.
"We are expecting holiday week to be at least twice what it usually is," Cernauskas said.
Jewel-Osco also expects bigger holiday sales — and more crowded aisles — as people travel less and shuttered restaurant dining rooms scuttle holiday dining out plans.
But it's unclear if shoppers will stick to tradition or start new ones or what product sizes they'll want for smaller gatherings, and that has made it hard to plan, said Mark Bristow, meat and seafood sales manager at Jewel-Osco, Chicago's largest grocery chain by store count.
To prepare for all scenarios, Jewel-Osco bought close to 20% more turkeys and hams than previous years, including 30% more hens under 16 pounds, Bristow said.
It also is ready with prime rib roasts, pork roasts, sausage, ground beef and meatless options in case customers want to try something different. It stocked up on lobster tails, crab legs and shrimp, and anticipates selling more seafood this year than any on record.
The greatest angst for many retailers is ensuring there is enough product available. COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants in April and May came during prime time for turkey processing, leading to harvest delays and heavier birds, and supply of smaller birds is tight.
As a result, Jewel-Osco will not be making its usual donations of turkeys to charities during the holidays, Bristow said.
Shoppers should expect shortages and higher prices for smaller turkeys and turkey breast meat, said Christine McCracken, executive director of animal protein at Rabobank, a bank focused on agriculture. Prices for whole birds are up 15% from a year ago, she said.
The shift to smaller birds has thrown a wrench in the plans of some turkey producers.
Gunthorp Farms, a pasture-raised poultry and pork farm in LaGrange, Indiana, underestimated orders for smaller frozen turkeys and is slaughtering some birds earlier than planned to satisfy demand.
Usually, half of the more-than 6,000 turkeys it sells for Thanksgiving are fresh, harvested a week before the holiday, but this year more than two-thirds will be frozen as it fills orders for 2,000 extra smaller frozen birds. There will be fewer turkeys left to cut into parts.
"This will be the most whole turkeys that we have ever sold," Gunthorp said.
At Kauffman Turkey Farms in Waterman, Illinois, 60 miles west of Chicago, President Robert Kauffman said he hoped the pandemic would have dissipated by the holidays so he planned for the same number and size of turkeys as usual. He sells his HoKa brand birds both to walk-in customers as well as retailers.
Now people are asking for smaller turkeys, but he usually reserves the 8- to 10-pounders for food bank donations and he doesn't want to renege on that commitment. He is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"I expect it's going to be a whole lot more like normal than people think," he said.
Meanwhile, Bell & Evans, a premium poultry brand that sells to higher-end retailers like Whole Foods, sold all of its smaller 8- to 14-pound turkeys but has plenty of 24-pounders left, said fourth-generation owner Scott Sechler. Families can always ask their butcher cut the bigger birds in half to serve smaller tables, he said.
Sechler also expects to sell more chickens for Thanksgiving than ever before as people break out their air fryers to cook for smaller parties.
For many people, maintaining the turkey tradition is important as they seek comfort during this uncomfortable year.
Gabriela Contreras, 43, usually gathers with nearly 80 relatives for Thanksgiving — they have to rent a hall — but this year she plans to cook dinner at home for her immediate family of 13.
The Mexican American family traditionally cooks turkey and tamales and will do the same this year, just less of it, she said.
"It's different," said Contreras, who lives in Logan Square. "But we'll chime in on FaceTime with grandma."
For others, the nontraditional nature of the holiday is an opportunity to experiment with untraditional spreads.
Wild Alaskan Co., a monthly direct-to-consumer subscription service for sustainably caught Alaskan seafood, created a Thanksgiving menu that suggests steamed Dungeness crab as a main course rather than turkey, or Wild Alaska Pollock fish pie in place of stuffing. The specialty items can be added a la carte to members' monthly boxes of fish filets, which start at $132 for 12 portions.
"Part of the push is to make this year memorable in ways that are happy and different and eclipse the COVID nightmare a little bit," said Monica Haim, co-owner of the company with her husband, Arron Kallenberg. "There is something about sitting around the dinner table and cracking crab legs with the people you love."
A Thanksgiving seafood feast isn't unusual for founder and CEO Kallenberg, who comes from three generations of commercial fishermen who traditionally featured sockeye salmon as the holiday's centerpiece. But more people may be willing to try new things. Wild Alaskan quadrupled its subscriber base this year, to 130,000 people, and Chicago is one of its largest markets.
Some people preparing for a Thanksgiving without family would rather not cook at all — or don't know how to.
Pete's Fresh Market is pushing its catering service of prepared Thanksgiving dinners — $79.99 for a 16- to 20-pound roasted turkey, three sides and a pie — and expects a 20% increase in demand, said Chief Operating Officer Joe Kolavo.
"Our biggest concern is the pickup of those meals," Kolavo said. "Everyone wants them in the same pickup window."
All manner of restaurants, eager to keep their doors open and workers employed, are offering takeout Thanksgiving feasts that offer homestyle tradition without the effort.
Alinea, the three-Michelin-star destination in Lincoln Park, is selling a $325 package, serving four, that includes a free-range turkey, compound butter, herbs and spices and detailed instructions for cooking the bird, plus ready-made sides including roasted garlic and sage stuffing and butternut squash soup.
Handlebar, a vegan mainstay in Wicker Park, is offering a dinner that includes a roasted vegetable pot pie and green bean casserole for $23.75 per person.
At Virtue in Hyde Park, chef-owner Erick Williams has been testing recipes, both at the restaurant and at home to mimic the kitchen equipment customers are likely to have, so he can provide fail-safe instructions for reheating his inaugural Thanksgiving dinner.
The southern meal includes a 15-pound roasted turkey, collard greens, cranberry sauce, candied yams and pecan pie. It costs $189 and feeds four to six people.
Williams said he usually spends the holiday serving food to the homeless, but this year his focus is on the families who can't see loved ones. Some people may want to buy dinners for elderly parents and drop it off at their door.
"It's driven by the thought of people not being able to share a meal, or having to share one virtually and not really knowing how to adequately cook, or only having one dish they know how to produce," he said.
Customers have expressed gratitude for the option, Williams said. "We're definitely going to sell out."