Families preparing for Thanksgiving likely are seeing higher prices at grocery stores and not as many smaller turkeys to choose from, experts say.
The average cost of a Thanksgiving meal is up 14% over last year, according to a report from the American Farm Bureau. A Thanksgiving turkey is 24% more expensive this year, at an average of $1.50 per pound, or $23.99 for a 16-pound bird.
Labor shortages and global supply chain issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic have squeezed the meat industry. That has pushed the cost of a turkey “through the roof” this season, Andrew Neva, owner of Northwest Meat Co., explained.
“Our meat industry is built on putting as many people as you can in a facility as tightly packed together and breaking down animals as fast as possible,” Neva said. “If you don’t have the resources and people to meet that volume ... it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Neva, whose company supplies restaurants and hotels in Chicago, said he has had to charge record-high prices for turkey this season.
Farmers predict turkey demand nine months in advance and were conservative with this year’s estimates, due to the unpredictability of the pandemic, according to Veronica Nigh, a senior economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation.
When the economy started to recover, and vaccines became widely available, farmers anticipated more Thanksgiving gatherings and fed the turkeys more. Smaller birds, as a result, may be difficult to find at grocery stores, Nigh said.
Food 4 Less stores are not experiencing a turkey shortage, but customers should shop earlier for more options. Kroger operates 17 Food 4 Less locations in Illinois, with spokeswoman Vanessa Rosales saying they are “prepared for the holiday rush.”
At Ho-Ka Turkey Farms in Waterman, about an hour’s drive from Chicago, Robert Kauffman raised about 60,000 turkeys this year. He sells to Chicago-area retailers including Pete’s Fresh Market and Tony’s Finer Foods.
There’s plenty of turkey to go around, Kauffman said, but a shortage of truck drivers and meatpacking workers has led to some production delays.
Kyle Zimmerman, co-owner of Harrison’s Poultry Farm in suburban Glenview, a poultry wholesaler, has noticed a squeeze in the supply of less-expensive, frozen turkeys he orders for food pantries and other charitable organizations.
“Normally, we can buy as many of those birds as we want,” he said.
Companies that pack the birds “are very short on help” and having trouble meeting demand, Zimmerman said.
Likewise, restaurants planning Thanksgiving specials are balancing the high prices of turkey and other ingredients with a shortage of servers.
Gene & Georgetti, an Italian steakhouse in River North, will have its usual salmon and steak options, in addition to turkey.
“In addition to the very traditional Thanksgiving items, we have a nice mix of of options that people can eat,” Gene & Georgetti owner Michelle Durpetti said. “That becomes advantageous because then we’re not just turkey.”
Catering by Michael’s, based in Morton Grove, will prepare food for clients on Thanksgiving and for a food pantry at Northwestern Settlement in Logan Square. Director of operations Jeff Ware has noticed the birds tend to be larger this year.
Ware said the cost of ingredients and packaging have both jumped this year — an additional burden on a food service industry still trying to get back on its feet.
“Our costs are out of control, and for an industry that really has already been so battered over the past two years, it’s definitely a challenge,” Ware said.
Ware expects the company to sell out of turkeys but “that’s just the reality of when you have a holiday like Thanksgiving, where the demand for turkey just skyrockets for one day a year.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify that Harrison’s Poultry Farm orders frozen turkeys for food pantries and other charitable organizations.