Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the holiday season, is getting a COVID-19 makeover. With the Centers for Disease Control advising against holiday travel, many individuals across the United States are finally surrendering to the grim reality of the pandemic by making last-minute calls canceling family dinner plans. In fact, only 29 percent of consumers are expected to host or attend a meal with extended family who does not live with them in 2020, down almost 20 percent from the 2019 holiday, according to market research firm IRI. Restaurants and food suppliers are also adjusting to the altered vision of a holiday with more people dining separately.
Chef James Rigato of Mabel Gray in Hazel Park, Michigan, made a last-minute decision to open up orders for to-go Thanksgiving meals on Wednesday, November 18, just hours after the state’s new restrictions on indoor dining took effect. The kits, which are designed as dinner for two, were already sold out by Thursday. In the past, Mabel Gray had taken pre-orders for hundreds of pies going into Thanksgiving, but this year, Rigato decided it made sense to offer a full meal. Rigato says he usually hosts a family meal with 50 people on Thanksgiving, but this year, due to concerns about the wide community spread of novel coronavirus, he and his girlfriend are staying home. “A lot of two person Thanksgivings are going to happen [this year],” he says, of the decision to keep meal kits small.
Rigato also consulted his staff before making the decision to open during the week of Thanksgiving, a time when Mabel Gray traditionally closes to give employees a break. The majority of employees, he says, asked him to offer a holiday meal. “Obviously, we’re looking for revenue streams wherever we can find them,” he says. “So, I got nudged by my team to do it. We’re also encouraging smaller gatherings, so we’re doing our part to be smart and say, ‘Hey, dinner for two, let’s all take it easy. Let’s hunker down and get through this safely.’”
While it was common in past years for some restaurants to offer Thanksgiving to-go options for folks who lacked the skills or desire to prepare their own turkey, in 2020 the number of establishments offering kits has exploded. There are several factors playing into that trend: Families choosing to stay home may want to make their experience a little more special with a restaurant meal instead of something home-cooked. At the same time, many restaurants are struggling to get by with limited seating and severe restrictions or bans on indoor dining as cases surge across the country.
For some customers, the experience of dining at home over Thanksgiving might even be freeing, as they’re not forced to conform to the traditional roast turkey and mashed potato crowd pleasers or commit to long hours in the kitchen. This year, it seems easier than ever before to find a vegan meal option, a solo dinner, and global takes on the holiday feast. At Nai Tapas in New York, the Thanksgiving menu is Spanish, with Catalan-style toasted paella, while Lebanese Taverna in Arlington, Virginia, is offering customers the choice of a roast turkey or a garlic-thyme lamb shoulder for the main event.
Farmers and meat suppliers are also trying to adjust to meet the changing demands of people celebrating apart. Whereas, big, bulky birds work for a mass family gathering, smaller meals call for smaller turkeys. “Nine out of 10 people want the small birds,” Los Angeles-based Standing’s Butchery owner Jered Standing tells the LA Times. “I tried to get more — people are calling every day. They’re just not available.” The paper reports that some farms responded by butchering birds several weeks early this year to avoid turkeys becoming too plump. In a way, the smaller gatherings could turn into a boon for the turkey industry, because more poultry is needed to supply the more fractured holiday parties; but farmers also fear that the more subdued holiday could result in fewer turkeys being sold. One turkey farmer told Vox that the impact of COVID-19 on labor and processing has made it even more difficult to predict how this year’s sales. Meanwhile, some families are opting for a small cut, like turkey breast or a whole duck or roast chicken.
Some spring holidays like Mother’s Day and Easter celebrations occurred when restaurants were still gaining their footing with takeout and delivery, but by now, chef James Rigato says that establishments that embraced the changes have become more familiar with the work required to prepare a to-go feast. “Now we have all the proper software, we have all the packaging tricks down,” he says. “We basically put this together on Tock, and then list it, and it just sells itself.”
While prices for some things like latex gloves, disposable masks, and to-go containers are beginning to go up, Rigato looks on the bright side: “This is a good year to be a customer looking for a Thanksgiving meal.”