National Post (Latest Edition)
The turkey business has no idea what to expect from Thanksgiving.
Leila Batten was taking turkey orders on Thursday, but not as many as she’d like to be taking just 11 days before Thanksgiving.
Customers were telling Batten, who owns Whitehouse Meats in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, that they didn’t know who was coming for supper, if anybody, but they wanted to do “something turkey” — maybe just a leg or a stuffed breast.
One couple ordered three small turkeys, one for them and one to drop off at each of their kids’ houses. Another said they were getting the same big turkey, guests or no guests, because that’s the sort they know how to cook.
“It’s hard to judge what’s going to happen,” said Batten, who reduced her Thanksgiving turkey supply by 25 per cent this year.
The coming week is historically when most Canadian households shop for their Thanksgiving turkey. But as daily confirmed cases of COVID- 19 continue to climb, most people in the turkey business have no idea what to expect from one of their most hallowed holidays of the year.
Grocers have been ordering Butterballs and other whole turkeys at around the same pace as previous years, but it’s still not clear if people will buy them, said an executive at Exceldor Foods Ltd., the major poultry cooperative that licences the Butterball brand in Canada and processes about 30 million kilograms of turkey here annually.
Exceldor delivered almost all its frozen turkey orders to supermarkets over the past week.
“The interesting thing is going to be how much of that gets sold through to the consumers. And, frankly, we’ll only know that when the retailers order for Christmas,” said Tony Tavares, senior vice- president of Exceldor’s turkey division.
“If Canadian consumers say, ‘ Well, I’m not going to get together, I’m not going to buy a whole turkey,’ those turkeys will remain in retailers’ inventories and they’re just going to order less for Christmas.”
The stakes are high for the turkey industry, which has struggled with consumption declines in recent years.
Thanksgiving accounts for 39 per cent — roughly 2.5 million birds in 2019 — of all Canadian sales of whole turkeys, second only to Christmas, which accounts for 42 per cent, according to the Turkey Farmers of Canada ( TFC).
But whole birds only account for about a third of the turkey market. The remaining two- thirds are processed into products such as cold cuts, bacon and burgers, sales of which suffered in the pandemic- related shutdowns this spring.
“Consumers didn’t trust anything that was sliced in store,” Tavares said. “Then you had all the sandwich shops, Subways and Tim Hortons, they weren’t there as well. It created a big backlog in inventory.”
Under supply management rules, TFC reduced the national flock by seven per cent due to pandemic- related shutdowns. That was on top of an earlier seven per cent reduction to account for a general decrease in demand.
To make matters worse, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in late September went on national television following the throne speech and said it was “all too likely we won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving, but we still have a shot at Christmas.”
Darren Ference, an Alberta turkey farmer who also serves as chair of TFC, said he was “a little disappointed” by the comment. But he noted that Easter turkey sales, despite coming in the middle of the spring lockdown, were still comparable to 2019.
“We’re not quite sure where we’re going to land,” Ference said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that people are going to want to buy and celebrate in smaller groups. Our processors have told us that sales to retail were OK, not great, but OK. But that doesn’t mean the sales from the retailer are OK.”
If sales drop at Thanksgiving, it will put more frozen turkeys in storage and lower prices.
“That’s certainly a concerning situation for us,” said Jean- Michel Laurin, chief executive of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council. “If we have a bad season, supply is going to be higher. So normally what happens is prices go down, storage stocks go up.”
Loblaw Co. Ltd., the largest supermarket chain in Canada, said it adjusted its Thanksgiving strategy this year, expecting a shift to
smaller turkeys as well as a change in who was cooking.
“Thanksgiving is often steeped in tradition (with the same people bringing the turkey each year), and cooking a turkey can be a daunting experience to those who have never tried it,” Loblaw spokesperson Catherine Thomas said in an email. “But we’ve still seen a lot of demand for the larger turkeys, because really, who doesn’t love leftovers.”
The grocer is stocking more easy- to- cook options, including pre- stuffed, cookfrom-frozen turkeys, and turkey breast roasts. The roast had been growing as a popular alternative to whole birds even before the pandemic, doubling in sales for Thanksgiving 2019, compared to 2018, according to TFC.
At La Boucherie Capitol, in Montreal’s Jean Talon Market, manager Vito De Benedictis said he ordered roughly 10 per cent more turkey than he did last year, but he’s breaking many of them down to sell more deboned turkey roasts, stuffed breasts and legs, rather than whole birds.
“I’m not expecting big whole turkey sales,” he said.
Sanagan’s Meat Locker, with two locations in Toronto, has 390 turkeys to sell — roughly on par with last year — all ordered from farmers months ago when owner Peter Sanagan had no idea what October would look like.
At the time, he said, he was banking on the assumption that regardless of what stage the pandemic was in, “people are going to want to
have some level of normalcy — even if it’s a fictional normalcy.”
He remembered thinking, “Let’s just stick with what we had last year and roll the dice.” Then came that message from the prime minister last week. “So I’m like, ‘ Ah, crap. Let’s just carry on. Let’s see what happens.’”
On Thursday, Sanagan had around 100 pre- orders for turkeys, which was a bit lighter than last year, but not all that concerning considering how many people were still undecided about their plans.
“It’s been such a bizarre six months for so many people, and a frightening six months, and I think this is something that will make people feel a little bit better, at least for that day,” Sanagan said. “I’m hoping, anyway. There’s 390 turkeys hinging on it.”