EDITOR'S BLOG: Carving out options

by Joel Crews
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Joel Crews
Joel Crews

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – While a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner away from home is unthinkable to many (me included), the convenience of eating out, carrying out and mail-ordering holiday meals is a trend on the rise that shows no signs of relenting. For every family who thrives on the tradition of turkey shopping, turkey thawing and turkey baking, smoking or frying, there are almost as many who substitute or supplement their meals with non-traditional entrees or side dishes.

This past month, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc., based in Lebanon, Tennessee, served a record-high 1.5 million diners on Thanksgiving Day. The chain’s 641 US restaurants were not only open for business for the holiday but offered heat-and-eat, prepared Thanksgiving turkey dinners with all the fixings that could be preordered and picked up ahead of the November holiday.

Cracker Barrel Executive Chef Bill Kintzler said the company offered the options for the same reason many other foodservice outlets and retail grocery stores do: convenience.

“Preparing the Thanksgiving meal can be quite a chore,” he said. “Our new Heat n’ Serve Holiday Family Meals To-Go not only take the legwork out of preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal, but also give people more time to relax and enjoy the day with their loved ones.”

This convenience obviously resonates with consumers as Cracker Barrel served nearly 500,000 lbs. of turkey and 330,000 lbs. of gravy on Thanksgiving.

As a representative of those who don’t consider holiday meal preparation a chore, I contend that it is cooking that is one of the main events when I host the meal. Even when another family member hosts I always volunteer to cook the bird and deliver it with pride. In either scenario, it is the cooking process, which takes place in a billowing smoker on my patio, that always draws people to assemble outside, where most enjoy bathing in the curtain of oak and applewood smoke as the bird reaches its target temperature. Coats are zipped, drinks are sipped and laughter-filled conversation ensues in a manner that I relish, and it is the part of the gathering I enjoy most.

Still, there is obviously growing demand for quality food that can be picked up on holidays and the enjoyment of that food is as legitimate as cooked-at-home grub. For Boston Market, Thanksgiving is regarded as a culinary “Super Bowl,” according to CEO George Michel in a report published by CNBC this past month. The chain reportedly sees a five-fold increase in sales on Thanksgiving Day and the day before. Boston Market expected to serve 1.1 million customers on Turkey Day 2016.

Michel told CNBC: “Some customers come and eat in the restaurants, some pick up meals to go home, some pick up side orders or pies as gifts or to supplement their own meals.”

Sales during the months of November and December now make up 20 percent of the year’s business for the chain. The fact that its Thanksgiving business has grown 100 percent in the past five years is a signal of evolving consumers, Michel said.

“People are getting busier and busier with their lives and spending less time planning Thanksgiving than they did before,” Michel said.

Splitting the culinary difference is the growing popularity of meal kits, which include a variety of holiday-themed offerings. Up-and-comers in this subscription-based space include Blue Apron, Chef’d and Marley Spoon. As part of a partnership with Martha Stewart, Marley Spoon sold out of Thanksgiving-themed meal kits based on Stewart’s recipes and included everything to make her turkey, stuffing with herbs and dried cherries, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts and even apple pie. I understand it is convenient and is a solution many people demand.

Fabian Siegel, cofounder of Marley Spoon, told CNNMoney just before Thanksgiving, “For those who don’t cook much, it can be scary.”

“It’s very stressful cooking dinner for 10 to 20 people,” according to Boston Market’s Michel. He adds: “[Consumers] are looking for solutions to take the risk out of cooking the turkey.”

However, for those of us who thrive on the process almost as much as the end result, the fear and risk is overshadowed by the reward.

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