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'Thanksgiving To Go': Americans splash out on takeaways

By Natalie Sherman
Business reporter, New York

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
image copyrightRafael Soldi
image captionSerrah Russell often makes Thanksgiving dessert for big family gatherings but this year she's skipping the cooking

At this time in November, 34-year-old Serrah Russell would normally be fielding a tonne of text messages as her family plotted out kitchen logistics and contributions for the Thanksgiving feast.

But Covid concerns have cancelled the big gathering for her. So this year the artist is skipping cooking altogether, opting instead for a takeaway Thanksgiving meal.

She, her husband, two friends and toddler will be dining on a 10-dish spread prepared by Canlis, a high-end Seattle restaurant with an award-winning chef, who is offering a video tutorial to coach customers through the final steps of turkey roasting.

"It feels like it's been such a year," says Serrah, who has relied on Canlis takeaway to mark other special occasions this year. "It's sort of nice to take away that stress and just be present with people and enjoy that aspect of it."

Thanksgiving takeaways

As officials warn against travel and in some places bar gatherings of more than 10 people due to the pandemic, the limits have raised questions about the impact on Thanksgiving, normally one of the biggest holidays in the US and a generator of billions of dollars in travel and food sales.

Among poultry producers, the likelihood that smaller gatherings this year could loosen loyalty to the traditional turkey dinner has raised fears of a surplus of the fowl, especially of larger birds.

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But some restaurants, which have been hammered by social distancing restrictions and a drop in dining out, hope the situation has produced a possible silver lining, as smaller numbers make it more feasible for families to splurge on a professionally prepared meal - even if it ends up being eaten at home.

image copyrightCory Dewald
image captionParachute owner Beverly Kim, an award-winning chef, would normally close for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving takeaway packages are popping up at restaurants across the country, as chefs from Michelin-starred establishments to highway standbys like Cracker Barrel look to reinvent themselves for the Covid era.

Parachute, a Michelin-starred Korean-American restaurant in Chicago, would typically close on the holiday, enjoying the brief respite from what is one of its busiest months.

The restaurant is shut this year too, but families can pick up a Thanksgiving spread the day before, which draws on memories of what owner Beverly Kim's mother cooked for the celebration, with dishes like crab meat gratin and parsley and butter Korean rice.

"We want to make it easy and a way to celebrate," Ms Kim says.

Ms Kim says a Mother's Day package she offered earlier this year proved a hit, and with business still about 30% down on what it was before the pandemic, she's hoping to build on that success.

"People don't skimp on holidays or on birthdays. They still want to celebrate those major milestones," she says. "Restaurants like mine are banking on that - that people will support us at least with event kits and we can hopefully make it a memorable experience."

'The world has changed'

Less than 10% of Americans typically eat Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant, according to polls by the National Restaurant Association.

But this year, what is usually a quiet day for the industry has already generated millions of dollars in sales, says Bryan Ferschinger, marketing chief at Tock, a restaurant reservation system that has morphed into an online order platform during the pandemic.

image copyrightMedium Raw Images
image captionLiholiho Yacht Club's feast for four, featuring turkey roulade and passion fruit cream pie, sold out in roughly a week

Roughly 1,000 restaurants - about a fifth of the businesses on the platform - are offering "Thanksgiving To Go" menus, with more launching every day, he says.

"The world has changed. Restaurants have gotten creative this year as they strive to make the best of the situation by offering a range of Thanksgiving dinner options for carryout and delivery."

It's too soon to say how sales will compare with last year, but specialty shops and grocery stores have also reported boosting their meal kits and ready-to-eat options, betting that people tired of Covid cooking will seek out convenience - if only for parts of the meal - to celebrate.

"People are just getting burned out of cooking," says butcher Jake Dickson, owner of Dickson's Farmstand Meats in New York, which scaled back its order of raw turkeys by 30% but is doing brisk business in ready-made turkey confit legs. "We wanted delicious things that were celebratory without as much effort."

Fast service

At some of the most popular restaurants, Thanksgiving packages have disappeared as fast as reservations did in pre-Covid times.

The Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco, known for its multicultural fare and the scarcity of its tables, sold out its $200 (£150) four-person Thanksgiving-to-go meal in roughly a week.

Chef and co-owner Ravi Kapur says the big appetite for the feast, which includes sausage-stuffed turkey roulade, sticky rice stuffing and confit garlic mashed potatoes, means he's considering Christmas and New Year's kits too.

image copyrightMedium Raw Images
image captionLiholiho Yacht Club chef and co-owner Ravi Kapur

But Mr Kapur, who opened the restaurant in 2015, is not quite celebrating.

Since California entered its first lockdown in March, he's slashed his staff from more than 60 to about five. His dining room remains closed and sales this year are at about 20% of what they were, he estimates.

"If there's any way to kind of explore these new revenue streams and have a good time doing it, we will," he says. "But there's a lot more days of the year that we've got to get through. It's by no means an ultimate victory.

"If we were in a hospital, we'd be in critical condition," he adds.

Since March, about 100,000 restaurants in the US have closed - roughly one in six, according to the National Restaurant Association. Some two million jobs have yet to return.

As of September, about 40% of those still in business said they expected to close, unless Washington approved additional aid.

The industry's woes were on Lindsey O'Connor's mind as she considered her Thanksgiving options this year.

image copyrightHandout
image captionLindsey O'Connor may spend the holiday alone but she's still planning a feast

Lindsey, who lives in Minneapolis, may end up dining solo since Covid has made the prospect of travelling home to family or joining friends' celebrations more complicated.

But she's still planning a feast - even knowing some of it is destined for the freezer. She's ordered a half-turkey from barbecue food truck Animales BBQ, sweet potato and other sides from Union Hmong Kitchen and turned to the upscale Spoon and Stable restaurant for stuffing and pumpkin chiffon pie.

Lindsey plans to make her grandmother's dinner rolls, as she does every year, but the decision to outsource the rest of the cooking was deliberate - a way to make the holiday not only special and less stressful, but also to support the local restaurant scene.

"I feel like I'm in a position with having a steady paycheque to make sure I'm paying it forward and in my mind that means supporting local restaurants," says the 31-year-old, who researches retail trends.

"This winter is going to be super difficult," she adds. "I find it in some strange way a way to give back and ensure that other people can have a Thanksgiving meal themselves."

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