NEW YORK -- Whether it's a heat-and-eat program or one that requires minimal cooking, consumers are increasingly accepting a little -- or a lot -- of help in meeting the steep culinary demands of the holiday season.
Retailers large and small contacted by SN report that the prepared holiday meals segment of their business continues to grow at a healthy pace. Because of this, they say, they are growing more adept at recreating what was once considered a meal that only a mother or grandmother could make.
Nancy Hughes, vice president of deli operations, Ingles Markets, Asheville, N.C.:
There's a lot of growth occurring in the prepared holiday meal business -- we're seeing increases of 20% to 25% each year, because consumers are so busy and have less and less time to cook at home.
Consumers want to offer more healthy, homestyle types of dinners, but in many families both spouses are working, and there's just not enough time to do so. Manufacturers, however, have responded to this demand by using more homestyle recipes and lessening or eliminating preservatives.
This year we're offering a choice of six Thanksgiving Day dinners -- up two from last year. In addition to the three turkey dinners and one ham dinner we offered last year, we've added a rotisserie chicken dinner and a prime rib dinner.
We added the chicken and prime rib dinners because we think a lot of consumers want to offer their guests a choice between turkey and another meat. This selection gives them more options and more variety.
All of our dinners are fully cooked and refrigerated until customers pick them up, although we will heat dinners for an extra cost of $10. We decided to keep them refrigerated because of food safety and quality concerns. The food should be stored at 140 degrees, and we don't have the facilities to keep so much product at that temperature. Also, if the food is kept hot and then later reheated by the customer, who may not be ready for it at the time of pick-up, it tends to dry out.
The turkey dinners feature Butterball turkeys and come fully cooked and prepared from our supplier. We cook the ham, chicken and prime rib dinners ourselves. They're priced from $32.95 to $39.95, with the exception of the chicken dinner, which is priced at $24.95.
Our Butterball Turkey Dinner, priced at $32.95, consists of a 10- to 12-pound turkey, cornbread dressing and turkey gravy. Our Deluxe Turkey Dinner Feast, priced at $39.95, consists of the same items, with the addition of a broccoli-rice casserole and a sweet-potato casserole. Our Butterball Bone-In Turkey Breast Dinner, priced at $39.95, consists of a 5- to 7-pound Butterball bone-in turkey breast, cornbread dressing, sweet-potato casserole and homestyle turkey gravy.
Our Premium Spiral Slice Honey Glazed Ham Dinner, priced at $34.95, consists of a 6- to 7-pound spiral-sliced honey-glazed ham, a sweet-potato casserole, a broccoli-rice casserole and southern-style cole slaw. The prime rib dinner consists of a 3- to 4-pound beef prime rib, mashed potatoes, a broccoli-rice casserole and brown gravy. The Rotisserie Chicken Dinner consists of three rotisserie chickens -- either barbecued or with a lemon-pepper marinade, cornbread dressing, a broccoli-rice casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy.
All the side dishes come in 2-pound containers, except for the gravy and coleslaw, which come in 1-pound containers.
Our Thanksgiving Day newspaper advertisement comes out in mid-November, but we've had banners and posters in our stores for weeks, and we've been taking orders.
Randy Gottula, owner/operator of the Fall City, Neb. location of Hinky Dinky Supermarkets of Omaha, Neb.:
We're in a small, rural area of Nebraska with a population of about 5,000, so the need for prepared meals is not as strong here as it is in some other parts of the country.
As a matter of fact, this is only the second year that we've offered prepared Thanksgiving Day meals, and they will probably represent only about 10% of our total turkey sales for the Thanksgiving Day holiday.
Nevertheless, the concept is starting to catch on. I think it's a trend that's happening across the country. It's being fueled by the fact that there's a new generation of housewives who don't know how to cook a turkey dinner. I'll use my family as an illustration. While my wife still cooks everything from scratch, my daughter, a full-time schoolteacher in her mid-20s, is the kind of consumer who would buy this type of meal.
The dinner, which sells for $38, consists of an 8- to 10-pound frozen turkey that requires cooking, as well as potatoes, gravy and dinner rolls, which come in ovenable and micro- wavable containers for reheating.
We cooked the turkeys last year, but found that the whole process was too labor- intensive. In our advertising, we're emphasizing the fact that the turkey needs to be thawed and cooked, so there is no confusion.
Our newspaper advertisements begin during the second week of November and become heavier during the last two weeks of the month.
Linda Love, deli supervisor, Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas:
Our Thanksgiving Day prepared meal program grows every year. I think it's because everyone is so short on time.
We're offering three turkey and two ham selections, ranging from $19.99 to $37.99. All of them come with some side dishes, but most of our customers end up spending another $15 to $20 for additional side-dish choices.
All of the meals (which are packaged in a box) and all of the side dishes are fully cooked and require only reheating. We get them from our distributor.
The most popular choice features an 8- to 10-pound whole turkey, which is available roasted or smoked. It serves eight to 10 people and comes with 4 pounds of cornbread dressing and 2 pounds of giblet gravy.
We also offer two 8-pound boneless turkey breast meals -- both of which serve 14 to 16 and feature 4 pounds of cornbread dressing and 2 pounds of gravy. One of the meals is available roasted or smoked and retails for $25.99. The other, a more premium product, is roasted, and retails for $37.99.
In addition, we're also offering two ham dinners. One consists of a 5-pound ham, 2 pounds of sweet potatoes and a 2-pound green-bean casserole. It serves eight to 10 and retails for $19.99. The other consists of a 10-pound ham, 4 pounds of sweet potatoes and a 2-pound broccoli-rice casserole. It serves 16 to 20 and is priced at $33.99.
Optional side dishes include fruit salad, cranberry salad, broccoli-rice casserole, corn, mashed potatoes, pies and bread.
Banners have been up in our stores since early November, although our newspaper advertisement won't break until the middle of the month.
Most people pick up their orders the day before Thanksgiving, but we will be open for those who prefer to come in on Thanksgiving Day.
Mary Lou Long, director of deli operations, Lund Food Holdings, Edina, Minn.:
The number of consumers who are opting to buy their holiday meals already prepared grows every year.
People lead very busy lives and they want to simplify things, but they don't want to lose out on tradition. The meal we offer is very traditional. It consists of a fully cooked, fresh roasted turkey that serves eight to 10, mashed potatoes, poultry gravy, sage dressing, cranberry-orange relish, sweet potatoes, green beans amandine, dinner rolls and pumpkin pie.
Customers are telling us that they like the ease of the program: Simply put it in the oven for reheating, and it's ready. They don't have to get all stressed out slaving in the kitchen. They can actually enjoy their guests and the holiday.
The meals retail for $69.95 and are available for pick-up the day before Thanksgiving, since we're not open on the holiday.
Betsy Gilberti, catering assistant, Stew Leonard's, Norwalk, Conn.:
Home-Meal Replacement is the wave of the future, so it's only natural that the demand for prepared meals should spill over into the holidays.
We sold about 100 cooked turkey dinners in 1995, about 200 the year after, then around 300 last year, and it's going to be even bigger this year. People are already calling and placing their orders.
Nevertheless, we expect to see an increase not just in cooked turkeys, but in side dishes purchased by customers who prefer to buy non-cooked turkeys to prepare at home.
Today's consumers are looking for something that's fast, but they don't want fast food. They want something that's as close as possible to what they could create themselves.
That's one of the reasons we have real chefs in our onsite kitchen. Our executive chef is originally from France and has trained in Europe.
Our Thanksgiving Day meal program, like our HMR program, consists of items that are made from scratch and cooked fresh daily.
About 90% to 95% of our Thanksgiving Day dinner orders will be for turkeys, with the remainder for our glazed-ham dinners.
Our Thanksgiving Day offering consists of three sizes of fresh roasted turkey, retailing for $25 to $50 and serving up to 20 guests, depending on the size chosen. Our whole baked spiral glazed ham weighs about 7 to 8 pounds and costs $5.99 per pound.
Side dishes include turkey giblet gravy with herbs, chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes, au gratin potatoes, sweet-potato mousse, butter-glazed pearl onions and sweet peas, sauteed string beans amandine and pumpkin soup.
The prices range from $2.99 per pound for the mashed potatoes to $4.49 per quart for the giblet gravy and pumpkin soup.
In addition, we're offering a cranberry-orange sauce with cinnamon sticks and four platters featuring stuffed mushrooms, fresh fruit, vegetables and fresh sushi.
We're going to demo our Thanksgiving Day offerings in our Norwalk store, and possibly in our Danbury store. Customers can place orders in store or call or fax them in. We have an order sheet that makes it easy to order.