Two truckloads of fresh turkey drumsticks were being unloaded at Heinkel’s Packing Co. just as Wes Heinkel, the fourth-generation owner of the family business, was conversing about how important the product category has become to the 101-year-old company based in Decatur, Ill.

“Smoked turkey drumsticks are a rage,” Heinkel says. “Our vendors have found they are a profitable item to sell. And for us it doesn’t take a lot of labor to produce them.”

Heinkel’s Packing got its start in 1912 when Albert Heinkel began making sausage in the basement of his grocery store. Today, Heinkel’s Packing processes and distributes its smoked and fresh sausage, wieners, bacon, smoked turkey and other products in more than 40 states.

Heinkel’s Packing got into the turkey drumstick business about five years ago. It had previously processed smoked turkey breasts, wings, necks and tails. The processor added drumsticks to its portfolio when Fare Foods, a Du Quoin, Ill.-based full-service amusement food and concession supplies provider, asked Heinkel’s Packing to further process them in mass quantities. Heinkel’s Packing processed about 80,000 lbs. of smoked drumsticks for Fare Foods in its first year of doing business with the company. This year, Heinkel’s Packing will process at least 500,000 lbs. for Fare Foods.

“I attribute the growth to our quality of product,” Heinkel says, noting the drumsticks are most popular south of the Mason-Dixie Line. “They are golden brown and taste fantastic.”

Heinkel’s boost in the turkey drumstick business reflects a solid growth in the segment overall, especially at fairs, amusement parks and sporting events, including NASCAR races. Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is a microcosm of the growth. Turkey drumsticks were introduced at Disney World in the late 1990s and became so popular that they were introduced to other Disney parks. Disney World estimates that 1.6 million turkey drumsticks are consumed at the resort annually, amounting to 2.5 million lbs. of turkey.

The players

Several national and regional US processors offer smoked and fresh turkey drumsticks at retail and foodservice.

At the retail level, Honeysuckle White turkey drumsticks are merchandised as “all-natural and minimally processed with no additives or preservatives.” Honeysuckle advises its consumers to bake, fry, barbecue and smoke the drumsticks.

Butterball also offers fresh drumsticks, and Jennie-O offers a smoked version of the product. Butterball states that a serving (4 oz.) of its turkey drumsticks contain 170 calories, 22 grams of protein and 8 grams of fat.

Eddy Packing in Yoakum, Texas, also sells smoked turkey drumsticks at retail and foodservice. Fort Lee, NJ-based Stahl-Meyer offers the smoked product at retail.

At Polk’s Meat Products in Magee, Miss., CEO Julie Brazil says the company’s smoked turkey drumstick sales began to take off about two years ago.

This was a strong year for drumstick sales because of the mild weather, Heinkel says. People tend to eat less at outside events like fairs when it’s 90° F.

“This summer, temperatures were mild across the board, and you could see that in our drumstick orders,” he adds.

Heinkel’s Packing’s specs for turkey drumsticks are about 1.5 lbs. or a few ounces smaller. If a drumstick is too big, say 2 lbs., it’s not usable, at least in Heinkel’s business.

“We’re looking for drumsticks that are under 2 lbs.,” Heinkel says.

A 1.5-lb. drumstick contains more than 1 lb. of meat. The meat cutters at Heinkel’s Packing don’t even have to trim the drumsticks when they arrive.

“They are ready to be further processed,” Heinkel says.

At the further-processing level, the turkey drumsticks are injected with the company’s old brine recipe, which originated in Germany. There’s nothing fancy about the brine’s ingredients that make it different from other brines; it’s all in the amount the ingredients are used in the recipe, Heinkel says.

“It’s very old, but I’m not sure how old,” Heinkel says. “We wanted to try it on our drumsticks when we got in the business.”

Once injected, the drumsticks are hickory smoked in large ovens for about two hours. The wood used to smoke the turkey drums is purchased from the local Amish community.

“The supply chain to produce the drumsticks is unique to us in a geographical way,” Heinkel says. “No drumstick is unique until you use your brine on it and smoke it the way you want to do it.”

Most of Heinkel’s Packing’s drumstick business is in foodservice. “Our quantity movements are in bulk 30-lb. cases,” Heinkel says.

The processor’s drumsticks can sell for up to $9 each at fairs and amusement parks. Vendors usually prepare them in big ovens or heat them on grills. Heinkel says heating the drumsticks in ovens is probably the best method to achieve consistency.

“But not everyone is set up to do it that way,” he adds. “The two biggest players that go through our distributor both grill them. Others heat them in ovens in mass quantities.”

At retail, Heinkel’s Packing’s drumsticks are sold for about $2.99 a lb. at Kroger and Save A Lot grocery stores and other country markets. They’re packaged in a box with the company’s logo.

Polk’s Meat’s drumsticks are sold at foodservice and are popular at convenience stores, fairs and festivals, and sports events, says Brazil, who is the third-generation owner of the company, which began in 1969.

“It’s a very easy product to produce,” Brazil says. “We buy them, inject them and smoke them. It’s a very low-cost item for us as far as producing it.”

Brazil doesn’t have formal demographics on who’s eating turkey drumsticks, but she sees a lot of men eating them. She has also seen children nibbling on them for an entire football game.

Where’s the turkey?

But in October, Brazil said she couldn’t find any turkey drumsticks to sell.

“We’ve been out of them for several weeks,” she said. “We can’t find anybody to supply them. I know it’s just not us because we’re getting calls from other processors around the United States who want to know if we have them.”

But Brazil isn’t sure what is causing the shortage.

“I asked if the shortage was because of demand, but I was told that they’re not even out there to be bought,” she says.

Brazil figures that suppliers are keeping turkeys for themselves or that turkey kills are down.

Heinkel’s Packing also experienced a shortage. Heinkel says his company lost business this year because it didn’t have enough drumsticks to process.

“We could’ve easily done another 100,000 lbs., and it would’ve been new business,” he adds.

Heinkel blames it on a tight turkey market, among other things. Plus, producers have been getting more money from turkey grinders, which grind drumsticks.

Producers are also growing turkeys bigger, which means they have more meat.

“But the bigger birds also have drumsticks that are too big for concessionaires to sell,” Heinkel says, noting that those drumsticks are also being sold to grinders.

But that’s the turkey drumstick business, where availability and pricing fluctuate from year to year, Heinkel adds.

Heinkel wouldn’t reveal where his company purchases its raw material because of the tight market. He knows other processors are also looking for drumsticks and there’s a shortage.

“We’ve just had enough to complete our own orders,” he says. “We have several competitors.”

Although Polk’s Meat’s drumstick business is a fraction of its business when compared to its smoked sausage segment, it’s growing, Brazil says, adding she expects drumstick consumption to grow nationwide.

“It’s a great-tasting and economical item to offer people,” she says.

Heinkel also expects continued demand and growth – if the supply is there. There’s also the potential for growth online, which the processor hasn’t tapped yet, he adds.

Could turkey drumsticks ever rival the big business that chicken wings have become?

“I would buy a turkey leg over a chicken wing, but that’s just me,” Brazil says. “It’s too much work to eat a chicken wing.”

Larry Aylward is a freelance writer from Medina, Ohio.