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Follow the Turkeys: Retailers Face Unexpected Holiday Meat Demand and Supply Shortages

As Thanksgiving approaches, retailers struggle to predict consumer demand.
As Thanksgiving approaches, retailers struggle to predict consumer demand.
Photo by Anna Ta

As COVID cases continue to spike, Harris County’s health officials have been stressing the dangers of the impending holiday celebrations that would bring together families and their germs. One way to know whether Houstonians are following health guidelines this Thanksgiving?

Follow the turkeys.

Turkey retailers are seeing lifts and drops in orders and reservations parallel to the moods of holiday shoppers as the rising cases and positive vaccine breakthroughs take turns being the biggest story of the day.

Benjamin Berg, the owner of B&B Butchers and Restaurant on Washington Ave, said retailers have been struggling to predict demand during a pandemic holiday season.

“I'll be honest, since all this craziness started – I really don't know what to expect. That's been the hard part about it,” Berg said.

To cater to the deeply varied comfort level of Thanksgiving consumers, B&B has planned to sell a dine-in Thanksgiving dinner, a take out version, and whole turkeys, smoked and raw, from their butchers shop.

Berg said although the numbers are better than expected, dine-in reservations for the holidays are still lower by 20 to 25 percent compared to last year and that it may dip further as the COVID numbers climb.

“We're a little surprised about reservations inside the restaurant because they're pretty good. But I'm a little pessimistic,” Berg said. “I have a feeling as we get closer and closer that we may lose some reservations and have more take-out, just with all the news out there about rising cases.”

At Monday’s press conference, Mayor Sylvester Turner pointed to this week’s 7.9 percent positivity rate as part of a steady rise in infections across the city, strongly urging Houstonians to celebrate the holidays only with the people already living under their roofs.

According to Berg, B&B’s high take-out demand hints toward large numbers of people celebrating at home.

“We're actually seeing a way higher demand already in prepackaged meals, where we give the whole Thanksgiving meal to-go,” Berg said. “I think the people who want the take-out restaurant turkey meal, those are smaller portions for lesser people.”

City officials, rejoice.

The demand for whole turkeys is rising, too. Matt Abadie, a manager at Farmer’s Fresh Meat, a wholesaler and butcher shop with locations in East and Southeast Houston, said the current stress on turkey supply suggests that people are indeed staying home for their holiday meal, with the usual larger celebrations breaking down into more small Thanksgiving meals this year.

“Turkey demand is actually very high at the moment and supply is short,” Abadie said. “What we believe is happening is that people are staying home for Thanksgiving (because of COVID) and thus more turkeys are needed than usual. The lack of a traditional family and relatives gathering has placed additional stress to the already limited supply.”

According to Berg, the cost of turkeys has gone up significantly – about 20 percent. The COVID crisis strained the supply in more ways than one.

“This year I think it was shutting down turkey farms and slaughterhouses and all that, and they're just way behind,” Berg said. “There's still the demand in retail so there's definitely a significant price jump this year.”

To make matters worse, a fire at a Greenberg Smoked Turkey facility in Tyler took out a freezer with 87,000 turkeys, to the potential benefit of local suppliers.

Adam Pisani, co-owner of Logan Farms Honey Hams in West Houston, said that sales at the location have been down this year, but that the fire may increase interest in the turkeys and hams the retail location has to offer as Thanksgiving rolls around.

“We think that will increase our sales, although we’re very sorry to hear about it and we never want to have increases at the expense of others, we’re expecting a little more because of that,” Pisani said.

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According to Pisani, Logan Farms usually partners with corporations for employee holiday gifts and this year is no different, even as the economy has some struggles in its recovery.

“We are hopeful,” Pisani said. “We thought catering business would be almost nonexistent, but we’ve had over a hundred catering orders for Thanksgiving.”

Even as the dreams of a white Christmas get replaced with hopes for a brighter, vaccinated future, health officials and retailers alike urge Houstonians to celebrate carefully.

“Whatever makes people comfortable this year for the holidays and staying safe,” said Berg.

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