Deli Dinners Put The Ring In Thanksgiving

This holiday meal provides the opportunity to up the ante for deli prepared food programs

Roasted whole turkey for Thanksgiving Day

Each year, for the past five years that he’s held the position of director of foodservice at Roche Bros. Supermarkets, a 17-store chain based in Wellesley, MA, Adam Laliberte has increased his order of turkeys for Thanksgiving. Each year, too, Laliberte wonders if he’s over-ordered, only to find the birds are always sold out. This year, he’s ordered 3,100 turkeys, all-natural, antibiotic-free in two carved weight sizes: 10 to 12 pounds and 14 to 16 pounds. Laliberte’s also added organic turkeys to his 2019 list. Each bird is sold fully cooked. Many will be bundled into a holiday meal deal that includes seasonal deli sides like butternut squash, mashed potatoes and herb stuffing as well as turkey gravy, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls and an apple pie. The meal serves eight to 10 people, for one price, and is ready to re-heat and serve at home.

“We are known for the quality and size of our turkey, and word spreads year after year,” says Laliberte at Roche Bros., about the first of three drivers he sees for the growth in sales of the chain’s Thanksgiving meal program. “Secondly, people today either don’t have time or don’t know how to cook. Third, for something like Thanksgiving, you don’t want to invite friends and family over and not have the turkey turn out like that perfect bird in a Norman Rockwell painting. Ours are fully cooked and so are all of the sides.”

Roche Bros. Supermarket’s prepared foods department is far from alone in its offering of store-prepared Thanksgiving dinners. In fact, well over 100 U.S. supermarket chains, from major nationwide retailers like Kroger, Albertsons and Whole Foods Market, to regional players like Wegmans, Publix, H.E.B., Gelson’s and Rosauers Supermarkets provide the same or similar, according to the Nov. 22, 2018 released- report, Feature Advertising by U.S. Supermarkets Meat, Poultry, and Shell Eggs – Thanksgiving, by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, in Washington, D.C.

This type of offering makes good sense. Consider that of the people who planned to eat Thanksgiving dinner at home, one in four said they purchased either the entire meal or prepared dishes from a restaurant or other retail foodservice establishment like a grocery store, according to a 2017 survey by the National Restaurant Association, in Washington, D.C.

“Many shoppers don’t think of the deli as a place where they can pick up a fully-cooked turkey or holiday dinner,” says Holly LaVallie, director of marketing, deli solutions, for the Jennie-O Turkey Store, in Willmar, MN. “Therefore, there is a huge opportunity to communicate this message and make the deli’s catering or prepared foods department a destination for all or part of their Thanksgiving meal.”

Turkey & More

Turkey is the star of most Thanksgiving dinners. While uncooked turkeys are part the meat department and loss leader in sales, it’s cooked turkeys that bring customers to the supermarket deli. The cooked turkey can either come from the deli partnering with a commissary to prepare the birds and then ship to store-level, a scenario that happens at Roche Bros. Supermarkets, or the turkey can come in pre-cooked from the manufacturer.

“We offer two fully-cooked turkey items for the retail supermarket deli that are perfect to bundle in meal kits for Thanksgiving celebrations: a frozen fully cooked smoked turkey and a frozen fully cooked baked turkey,” says Adam Grant, associate brand manager for retail deli at Butterball LLC, headquartered in Garner, NC. “Both are hassle-free turkey options that offer easy preparation, less mess, rich flavor and a short heating time, making them a convenient centerpiece on any Thanksgiving table.”

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to Thanksgiving turkey. For example, Roche Bros. also offers a boneless roast turkey breast. This is sold as a bundled holiday meal with the same sides, albeit smaller servings to feed four to six people.

To meet this customer’s needs, Butterball recently launched its Herb Roasted Thanksgiving Style Deli Turkey Breast line as part of its premium slice-to-order offerings.

“This product can be used as a convenient heat-and-eat Thanksgiving turkey option,” says Grant.

It’s not just turkey with a seat at the table for Thanksgiving. Spiral hams and prime rib of beef also figure prominently among the supermarkets across the country that offer store-prepared holiday dinners. For example, Roche Bros. offers a choice of Glazed Half Spiral Sliced Ham or a Flame-Glazed Honey Ham as alternatives to its turkey.

“While we plan to do new research during the upcoming Thanksgiving season, we know that turkey, beef, chicken and pork have all seen strong year-over-year growth in the prepared entrée/meals category,” says Tammy Shaw, director retail marketing for Cargill Protein – North America, in Wichita, KS.

Cured hams in particular offer a flavorful contrast to comparably blander turkey.

“Buying our cooked Virginia Hams by the pound is a trend,” says Sam Edwards, owner of Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, in Surry, VA. “Cooking a ham just before Thanksgiving dinner may provide the best flavor and a lot of leftovers for ham sandwiches but most folks don’t know or want to cook a whole ham. Buying the ham sliced in the deli or our pre-sliced cooked VA Ham in one-pound packages provides just the ham needed for the big dinner.”

Seasonal Sides

What is driving sales of retail packs of deli sides for Thanksgiving, according to Jim Gawronski, director of sales and marketing for Garden-Fresh Foods, Inc., in Milwaukee, WI, “are those who take pride in roasting the bird at home, but either don’t want or have time to make all the sides, and Millennials who share the meal with just a few friends and want something convenient yet cravable.”

“The most popular seasonal product for us is our Baked Sage Dressing. We offer this in 1- and 2.5-pound sizes, each is high pressure pasteurized for a 45-day shelf life. Many delis will bring this in early in November and carry it right through Christmas,” says Gawronski.

New this year, the company will introduce a 20-ounce size of Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese.

Potatoes are big-sellers and Garden-Fresh offers Au Gratin Potatoes, a Baked Potato Casserole and Old-Fashioned Whipped Potatoes.

“Mashed potatoes are always a perennial favorite year-round,” says John McCarthy, Jr., senior brand marketing manager for Reser’s Fine Foods, in Beaverton, OR. “However, we find that our Baked Scalloped Potatoes are so popular for Thanksgiving that operators sell it pre-packed in the cold case and hot ready-to-serve in the service case.”

Supermarket delis looking for a potato side to differentiate themselves may find it in a newly- launched, crispy, filled potato product manufactured and marketed by Swiss Rösti, a family-operated start-up company headquartered in Portland, OR. The 2.5-ounce balls currently come in three flavors: Melty Swiss Raclette, filled with imported Swiss Raclette cheese; the Stuffed Baked Potato, filled with sour cream, cream cheese and chives; and the Zesty Chili Cheese, filled with garbanzo beans, sharp Cheddar cheese, red peppers, poblano peppers and spices.

“We sell these four in a grab-and-go box in the frozen foods section of the supermarket,” says Steve Caldwell, president and founder. “Plus, we offer a 96-count foodservice pack that delis can bake off and serve out of the hot case. The beauty is the rosti’s versatility. They can be served hot topped with turkey gravy as part of a Thanksgiving meal or as a base for an eggs benedict or side to scrambled eggs for a holiday breakfast or topped with guacamole or chili cheese as an appetizer or snack while watching the game.”

The company will introduce a vegan Curry Lentil rosti this fall. Ingredients include sweet potatoes, coconut milk, peas and carrots and turmeric.

Beyond this, mashed sweet potatoes and green bean casserole are other Thanksgiving best-sellers, according to McCarthy. “There are some differences by region. For example, in the West they are more interested in butternut squash than sweet potatoes. Some customers now look for a hybrid dish that is both traditional and either more healthful or trendy. Examples are green bean almondine instead of green bean casserole and a quinoa rather than bread stuffing.”

These twists are evident on the Thanksgiving Menu at Roche Bros. Wild Rice & Kale Stuffing, Roasted Brussel Sprouts, Herb Roasted Root Vegetables and Roasted Balsamic Pearl Onions are among the selections.

Homemade Green Bean Casserole with Fried Onions

Dinner Is Served

There are three reasons why customers come to the deli for Thanksgiving, according to Reser’s McCarthy. “First, are those who want a complete meal ready to take home and serve. The second like the flexibility of customizing their whole meal or part of their meal by buying a la carte. The third are running through the store looking for something to take with them to contribute to the holiday meal. To maximize sales during this biggest food holiday of the year, supermarket deli operators need to be prepared for all three.”

The best time to prepare and promote is prior to the holiday.

“Our Thanksgiving menus arrive in stores four to six weeks in advance. Customers can order any time up until the Monday before the holiday, either via an in-store menu, or we have a catering website where they can order their Thanksgiving dinner online. We can’t cook all these turkeys in-store, so we work with a third-party commissary that cooks the birds, adds the sides and packs the dinner kits. The day before Thanksgiving, they distribute early to our stores and customer pick up takes place all that day,” explains Laliberte at Roche Bros..

Pre-order programs, signage, flyers and danglers in store as well as social media and website information are good ways to let customers know what’s available in the deli for Thanksgiving.

For pre-bundled dinners, offer two choices, recommends Edwards Virginia Smokehouse’s Edwards. “One with appetizers to desert for two to 10 servings and another version that provides just the main course to keep the costs down.”

For customers that aren’t as concerned with the convenience or single price point of a bundled Thanksgiving dinner, provide creative inspiration instead, says Jennie-O’s LaVallie. “For example, offer the turkey at one price and a choice of a certain number of sides at a discounted price, buy one get one free offer or line priced. Merchandise these sides all in one place in a seasonal set so customers can see all of their choices at once. This could be in the cold grab-and-go case, hot to go in the service case or in both places. This is a good way to build the basket ring.”

Finally, the inclusive nature of Thanksgiving should extend to the entire supermarket, as well.

“Our stores really have knock-out merchandising in every department, not just in the deli and not only a few decorations here and there. When they walk in, they instantly know it’s Thanksgiving. This is vitally important to the success of holiday sales,” says Laliberte. DB