The calendar is in its last months of 2021, which means holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas will soon be upon us, and those are two of the biggest occasions for turkey buying in the supermarkets.   

That’s why many turkey producers concentrate on this time. In fact, Rebecca Welch, senior brand manager at Butterball, Garner, N.C., noted the company’s immediate focus is on products purchased mostly around Thanksgiving because they know Americans are looking forward to celebrating the holiday.  

A recent Butterball survey indicated 90% of people are excited about celebrating Thanksgiving, and 90% of those will do so with a turkey at the center of the meal. 

“Right now, due to COVID concerns related to the delta variant, we see about 1/3 of consumers considering a smaller gathering again this year, so it’s possible demand could be similar to what we saw last year,” Welch said. “Last year, we saw record numbers of Thanksgiving celebrations as many people celebrated Thanksgiving with only immediate family, which meant a lot of first-time hosts and more celebrations than we would traditionally see.”  

That also meant new opportunities for supermarkets to bring new customers to the turkey category, especially millennial shoppers who accounted for 44% of first-time holiday hosting in 2020.  

Turkey was a big seller during the pandemic. Initially, when other proteins were running short, customers looked for ways to fill voids in their meat case, and turkey was an available and viable option.  

“Many consumers looking to put a protein on their table found turkey as an excellent new option,” said Douglas Santschi, vice president and general manager, prepared foodservice, Tyson Foods, headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas. “Learning to use ground turkey instead of ground beef, or a turkey filet as a center of plate option, turkey was introduced to many new consumers as a delicious protein option with endless possibilities for customization.”  

Kim Anderson, brand manager for the Jennie-O Turkey Store division of Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods, noted consumers are increasingly on the lookout for foods and recipe inspiration that serve their overall health and wellbeing—food that does more than provide nourishment—and lean turkey does just that. 

“We’re also seeing people replace traditionally higher calorie meats in dishes like burgers and tacos with ground turkey for a more wholesome option,” she said. “We work with some top chefs in the country, and turkey is being used in restaurants and at home in some pretty creative ways.”  

Farm to table continues to be important to consumers as well, and Hormel provides clear visibility to consumers through its Jennie-O Turkey Tracker, which allows consumers to track their whole turkeys back to the Midwest farms where they were raised.  

“We’re also seeing a rise in the use of countertop appliances and consumers looking for turkey recipes they can make in air fryers and multicookers,” Anderson said. 


A four-season approach 

Outside of Thanksgiving, in many of the categories where turkey companies compete, demand for turkey products saw increases above pre-pandemic levels.  

For example, volume sales of the turkey bacon and turkey breakfast sausage categories are both up nearly 20% over the same time period in 2019 according to IRI data that ended on Sept. 5, as consumers continue to look to turkey to provide delicious, high protein alternatives in the morning.  

While Butterball is known for its holiday turkeys, the company also provides products in pretty much every category where turkey exists, including retail service deli, fresh meat case, and convenient fully cooked products like turkey bacon and turkey breakfast sausage. In tune with emerging consumer needs, it also offers the Farm to Family by Butterball brand for products made from turkeys raised either organically or without antibiotics.  

“We find it important to focus on key time periods year-round like Butterball turkey burgers in summer when people are reaching for interesting, flavorful items on the grill or ground turkey in January when people are looking for turkey’s naturally healthy protein to jump start their healthful living new year’s resolutions,” Welch said. “There are also opportunities to market turkey products as an everyday portion of the plate, like swapping turkey breakfast sausage or bacon for traditional pork bacon for turkey’s natural health benefits.”  

Santschi noted the most significant factor in establishing a year-round turkey business is having a complete portfolio of turkey options and continually looking for ways to innovate to keep the category fresh and exciting.   

“Consumers and operators also need to have tools such as recipe inspiration to allow them to explore the many ways turkey can be used, including it as the main feature or an ingredient in a dish,” he said.   

Establishing a year-round program is about education and inspiration, Anderson said.  

“Inspiring those who love food to experiment with turkey in non-traditional ways and inspiring consumers to use turkey for easy weeknight meals like burgers, tacos, pastas and soups,” she said. “Introducing turkey to young fans through creative dishes like meatballs and even turkey bacon. There are endless possibilities from the restaurant to the home.” 


New and improved  

Santschi noted new and bold flavors are the latest buzz in turkey, and Tyson Foods has responded to the trend with its recent Sara Lee Nashville Hot Turkey Breast. 

The company also has three new offerings that focus on big, bold flavor profiles and items that save time in the kitchen or back-of-house with popular flavors while still allowing for customization to fit any plate or menu. These are Whole Muscle Nashville Hot Turkey Breast; Whole Muscle Rotisserie Dry Rub Turkey Breast; and Whole Muscle Roasted Garlic & Herb Dry Rub Turkey Breast. 

 “Tyson Foods works closely with our R&D team members and culinary chefs to create flavor options for center-of-plate,” she said. “We also partner with the National Turkey Federation and the Iowa Turkey Federation to capture these on-trend flavors and develop products that are interesting and attractive to consumers.”  

By the end of 2021, Butterball will launch a new breast roast item made from 100% breast meat designed to meet the needs for smaller gatherings in a convenient way.  

“It is merchandized in the refrigerated section and eliminates the time and hassle of thawing,” Welch said. “It’s also perfect on the grill, in a smoker, in a pressure cooker or slow cooker, or for a variety of other cooking methods. It’s a great alternative to a whole turkey for the center of the Thanksgiving table, but ready in less than two hours, and is also convenient for weekend meals and special occasions.”  

Jennie-O recently introduced a new product called Jennie-O turkey burger blends, featuring a combination of turkey and plant-based proteins.  


Appealing to shoppers 

A recent Butterball survey indicates 43% of consumers who changed their shopping habits due to the pandemic are likely to continue this behavior in order to spend less time in stores, reduce the number of stores visited and cut back on total shopping trips.  

 “For this reason, we recommend retailers use the online environment to be more consultative for people unsure what to buy or when to buy it, by connecting products to the number of people the product feeds, how long it takes to thaw, etc.,” Welch said. “Additionally, maximize traffic flow by placing top revenue/margin items so consumers pass high impact endcap displays of Butterball fresh whole turkeys prior to Butterball frozen whole turkeys and eventually to lower revenue/margin items.” 

She also recommended that stores feature smaller unit size turkey products in ads and online to let consumers hosting smaller Thanksgiving gatherings know that they have the turkey products available to meet their needs.  

Partnership with retail customers is key in sharing the potential for turkey in every area of the menu, Santschi said. 

“You will see our portfolio of turkey products showcased in multiple places, including everything from sample stations at your local club stores to nationally competitive smoke competitions,” he said. “These allow us to showcase turkey as an everyday protein option that deserves a place on every menu.”   

He added that turkey deserves a seat right alongside the other center-of-plate protein options in the supermarket’s meat case.   

“We are focused on packaging that is fresh and clean to reflect the nutritious option that turkey provides for families,” Santschi said. “Having tear-away recipe options near the case is another great way to get consumers excited about the many different ways turkey can be prepared or serve as a substitute for traditional beef or pork options. High visibility and showcasing simple, wholesome and quick at-home meal preparation options is key.”  

Anderson noted that one of the company’s busiest times is in January, when people are making healthy lifestyles commitments.   

“Our new Live Well Eat Well initiative shows people how to apply turkey to specific diets,” she said. “Our team of experts did the necessary research to create crowd-pleasing recipes that fit into the following categories: Paleo Diet, Carb Conscious, Clean Eating and Ketogenic Diet.”  

Jennie-O also has a new initiative called Turkey Tonight that spotlights the versatility and deliciousness of turkey beyond the holidays.   

“Through this campaign, we hope to inspire consumers by sharing new twists on their mealtime favorites that put turkey at the center of the plate,” Anderson said.