Rising turkey prices spoiling plans for restaurateurs, pitmasters and consumers

Inflation pains may prompt some to ham it up for their Thanksgiving spread, instead.

By Casey CheekNovember 23, 2022 9:30 am, , ,

For those looking to make a traditional Thanksgiving spread this year, the rising price of turkey may be a cause for frustration.

The inflation pains are already causing owners of restaurants and barbecue joints across Texas to look toward alternatives – both at their establishments and for their own family feasts.

Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn spoke with the Standard about what’s behind these rising prices and what consumers can expect in the near future. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Barbecued turkey – I know that’s a thing. Do you do that come Thanksgiving time? How big is barbecued turkey?

Daniel Vaughn: Barbecued turkey is huge. Not only folks doing it in the backyard in their smokers – either whole turkeys or turkey breast – but also barbecue joints offering their big Thanksgiving dinner packages that usually include a whole turkey or those turkey breasts that they’re serving throughout the year.

So what’s behind this apparent shortage of birds? Or is it just that they’re getting so expensive people can’t afford to bring them in? 

Well, there is a shortage, and that’s causing them to be more expensive. There’s been a particularly potent avian influenza throughout the turkey and chicken flocks in the U.S. that’s been really persistent through the warm months of the summer, which normally doesn’t happen. That warm weather usually kills off the avian flu, but this one’s been persistent. And just between January and July, 5.4 million turkeys were killed on farms across the state, or really across the country, because of this avian flu and to help stop the spread of it.

What is this doing to the bottom line? How much more expensive are turkeys? 

Well, it’s not only that the turkeys themselves are more expensive, sometimes by 150% more. But also, when you’re talking whole birds, a lot of it is just different options, right? So when you’re buying a turkey, you’re usually looking for a particular size, whether it’s a 10-to-12-pound, 12-to-15 or those big 20-pound Tom turkeys. And you’re just maybe not going to have all those different options. And certainly these restaurants who are looking to get those turkeys ordered in for their big Thanksgiving dinners, they don’t have those options either.

How big a season is the holiday season when it comes to the barbecue business? 

Oh, it’s huge. You know, I think one of those things – especially with the high beef prices that we’ve seen over the last couple of years – is turkey and poultry has sort of been a savior, and it’s been steadily priced and been one of those profit centers for barbecue joints. And the fact that they don’t have that is just making things harder.

Well, what are you hearing from pitmasters? How are they trying to weather this bird shortage? 

Chicken, chicken, chicken. That’s what they’re saying. I mean, if they haven’t just taken turkey off the menu completely because of the price or just because of the difficulty in getting it, you know, many of them have switched to doing chicken – whether it’s boneless, skinless breasts and thighs or just doing half chickens. And so, you know, that has been the response from a lot of pitmasters.

Are beef prices still high, or are people avoiding it? What’s happening?

Brisket prices and beef prices in general still are high. They aren’t at those crazy levels that we saw in mid-2020. But you know, they have normally come down from those spikes pretty quickly, and that didn’t happen in 2020 and 2021, and it really hasn’t gotten back down to pre-pandemic pricing so far.

So what do you see as the impact of this turkey shortage and the huge increase in costs? I mean, 150% – that’s quite a lot. There are a lot of these barbecue businesses that really struggled during the pandemic to get back on their feet. 

Well, yeah. I mean, you have somebody like an Evie Mae’s BBQ up in Wolfforth near Lubbock. And, you know, they have for many years done that big turkey dinner, and this year they just decided to cancel it altogether. They thought about possibly doing smoked prime rib instead of turkey but then just decided to give their folks a break and let their employees have that extra time off and not have to worry about trying to put those meals together. But, you know, certainly that’s something that helped make them money in the past, and they’re not going to have that.

I know a lot of the pitmasters I talked to, when I asked them what they were going to have at their own table, most of the answers were either they’re a ham household anyway, or they’re going to be looking toward beef to be at the center of the table this year.

Do you see long-term ripple effects here, or ultimately are we going to get back to turkey prices where they were, and all’s well with the world?

Well, I talked to some food suppliers who said that they’ve been told by the farms that they work with to expect these high prices and some of these strains on the supply to continue through next spring. So there’s not really a clear end in sight.

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