Whether it’s full-blown catering for holiday events or helping everyday consumers plan and execute a successful party or family gathering, Thanksgiving and Christmas events can be a boon for the deli and prepared foods department.

This rings especially true for Minneapolis-based Kowalski’s market. The 11-store chain does heavy business during the fourth quarter holiday event season, particularly for Thanksgiving.

“I feel like this is our time to shine. We have such a great relationship with our customers,” says Jenny Mahoney, deli director for Kowalski’s. “Many of our cheese specialists know customers by name. We understand how special and important it is to have the traditions of getting together with family and friends and we’re honored to be a part of that with our customers.”

It's a point of pride, Mahoney says, to work with shoppers, even for those who typically spend most of their time behind the scenes.

“We get excited and pumped up to help plan people’s gatherings and parties,” she says. “It’s really what makes me the most excited, truly, about that time of the year. Being in the stores working and helping the customers plan and pick stuff out is so much fun.”

People want help

Carrie Walters, corporate chef for Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market, says that consumers are already looking for assistance when it comes to assembling “homemade” meals.

That demand skyrockets when it comes to the holiday season.

“I don’t know if it’s just people not willing to cook as much or if they don’t want to take a chance, but it’s growing,” she says. “You can customize your holiday dinners and party trays.”

Dorothy Lane offers customizable turkey or ham dinners. Shoppers can decide which protein they want and then pair that with their favorite sides. All of this is available for dinners and events of all sizes and it generates enough extra business that the company brings in more help.

“We have a concierge now,” Walters says. “For more than a week, we’ll have lines of people picking up completely catered holiday meals.”

The company also brings in employees who usually work in other departments or facilities to help fulfill the orders.

Kowalski’s offers multiple levels of help for their shoppers as well. For Thanksgiving, the company offers small and large turkey dinners, but also offers the meals without the meat. This allows the host to prepare the traditional turkey — or protein of their choice — while also accepting a helping hand from their neighborhood Kowalski’s.

“We have a dinner without the main protein that we call ‘Just the Sides,’” Mahoney says. “If the customer wants to cook their own turkey or their own ham or prime rib, they can just buy the sides that from us. Each one feeds six to eight people.”

Protecting your brand

Catering for holiday events and family gatherings can put your products and your name in front of a lot new people and potential customers. So while it’s always important to put your best foot forward, it doesn’t hurt to go a step further during the fourth quarter.

That was the thought behind Kowalski’s going in a new direction this year. Instead of relying on a third-party company to assemble their holiday dinners, the company is bringing everything in-house.

“This will be the first year we’re not using a third party for assembling our dinners,” Mahoney says. “We’re going to assemble them ourselves, which is going to be unique and sort of insane, but we’re excited about it.”

It’s more work, but the payoff is knowing exactly what the dinners look like before they head out the door to their destinations. That wasn’t always the case in the past, Mahoney says.

“Truly, we could have tons of meetings with a third party and feel like we’re as organized as can be and we’re all on the same page, but it all comes down to the control factor,” she says. “At the end of the day we’d get the dinners and there would be mistakes made or things just aren’t to the same standard that we have. We feel that, going forward, we want to try to package them ourselves because we have such high standards of what we want to put out to our customers. We decided that we’re taking a stab at it ourselves this year.”

The same goes for maintaining the same high quality that your shoppers have come to expect. Just because things get hectic, the quality can’t dip.

“Our meats will be the same quality that we’re always selling,” Walters says. “We’re not buying something that’s a lower grand and our customers know that. It gives us a better taste all around.”

Prepare early

It might go without saying, but Mahoney stresses the importance of getting on top of holiday planning even earlier than you think is necessary. In fact, Thanksgiving preparation is nearly a year-round ordeal for Kowalski’s.

“The further out you start prepping, the better,” she says. “We’ve been talking about Thanksgiving since, basically, last Thanksgiving. We’ve had meetings six to eight weeks to get our heads completely wrapped around what we’re doing and staying as organized as possible. You have to be really mindful of using your calendars. That’s the biggest thing we’ve learned. You have to get ahead of the game and get everyone on the right page.”

Getting things in line earlier makes it easier for the routine duties that can be so key during the holiday season, like cross-merchandising. Little things like which cranberries to move next to the freshly cooked turkey or which rolls to move over by the prepared meals are easier when everything is taken care of earlier.

“I feel like we do a really good job with cross-merchandising. It’s part of the business and it works really well for our company,” Mahoney says. “We have merchandising meetings every week with all of the department heads. We’ll sit around and decide what’s going to go where and with what.”