Inside a hot room adjacent to the kitchen at Frank’s Restaurant in Prairieville, cooks worked methodically through racks of raw turkeys Monday morning. First, they injected them with a liquid concoction; then dropped them, several at a time, into industrial fryers full of canola oil; extracted them, golden brown; and let them cool on racks before taking them to the kitchen to be vacuum-sealed.
The art of turkey-frying — a deeply southern enterprise whose mainstream popularity Serious Eats traced back to a UPI story from small-town Church Point, Louisiana in 1982 — is met with science at Frank’s. Though Frank's is not open on Thanksgiving Day, it projects “conservatively” selling 3,000 pre-cooked turkeys, said general manager Frank Dedman III, grandson of the restaurant’s founder.
Most of those will be fried, Dedman said, though its location in Prairieville, which opened in 2004, and the original on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge also smoke and bake turkeys for sale.
Thus, the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving are “all hands on deck” at the restaurant, Dedman said.
“We’re frying around the clock,” he said. “This is by far so much busier than any other time of the year.”
The changing lifestyles of Americans has led to a change in Thanksgiving dinner. Instead of laboring for hours in the kitchen, more and more people are choosing to get their turkeys, hams and side dishes pre-made from restaurants, grocery stores and, in some cases, Woman's Hospital.
“As consumers continue to use restaurants more in their daily lifestyles, it’s not surprising that for holidays and special occasions, this carries over into those celebrations,” said Hudson Riehle, a senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association.
A survey conducted earlier this month by the organization found that 9 percent of Americans plan to eat Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. Of the people eating at home, one in four will have bought either prepared dishes or an entire meal from a restaurant or store.
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For consumers, the issue with Thanksgiving dinner comes down to several factors, Riehle said: Would you rather visit with family and friends instead of spending hours in a kitchen cooking? Is the convenience of purchasing dishes made at a restaurant or store worth giving up the comfort of a home-made meal? Or is the quality of a favorite restaurant dish higher than what could be produced in the home kitchen?
"The decision to use a restaurant for a meal, holiday or not, is based on a unique matrix," he said.
This year, Dedman said, holiday meal sales have “exploded,” beating out sales for the entire month of November 2017 by mid-month this year, something he attributes to an advertising push. Dedman, and his father, Frank Dedman Jr., lay claim to being at the forefront of fried turkey preparation in the Baton Rouge region about 30 years ago. Around that time, turkey frying was starting to emerge as a preferred method of cooking among some home cooks, especially across the South.
These days, fried turkeys are ubiquitous. But Dedman III said each year, more and more people, apparently uninterested with wrangling a giant fowl into a vat of scorching oil, seek out an already-done bird from the restaurant.
“You can burn your freaking house down,” Dedman cautions.
A few years ago, the restaurant began offering online ordering for holiday meals, an option that Dedman Jr. said is increasingly popular with millennials.
Wayne Stabiler said Thanksgiving has become a “really good day” at his local restaurants. This year, his Little Village restaurant on Airline Highway and Stab’s Prime Steak & Seafood on Jefferson Highway will be open on the holiday. Turkey will be offered along with the Italian dishes at Little Village and the steaks at Stab’s.
“It’s easy for people to go to our restaurants now instead of fighting the aggravation with cooking and the mess afterwards,” he said. “They can have a good meal with the family and leave. It’s over for them.”
Brent Gurien, manager of the Baton Rouge location of Frank’s, said nearly a third of customers order their holiday meals online.
TJ Ribs, the Baton Rouge-based barbecue chain, also offers customers the ability to click a button and order a smoked turkey for pickup. Kevin Francis, operations manager at TJ Ribs, said the restaurant usually does $5,000 to $7,000 in additional revenue through its Thanksgiving meals, even though the restaurant is not open on Thanksgiving Day. He expects to do at least 100 turkeys this year.
“(Online ordering) is starting to be the way people are leaning towards … instead of coming in or calling,” he said.
Tony Matherne, who co-owns the four Matherne’s Markets in the area, said he hopes to introduce an online service to allow customers to order prepared holiday items such as turkeys and hams in time for Christmas. Matherne’s launched a service earlier this year that allows customers to order items online and pick them up at the store, but that hasn’t been extended to holiday dinners.
Even without the ease of online ordering, Matherne said prepared holiday dinners from his store are gaining in popularity. “We’ve seen an uptick in business. We’re going to sell a few hundred this year,” he said. “That’s definitely up from five years ago.”
Rouses also offers online ordering and delivery for groceries, but not for prepared holiday meals, said Tim Acosta, marketing director at Rouses. The Louisiana-based grocer is bustling during the holidays, he said, as a large number of people still want to cook for Thanksgiving.
Still, a lot of Rouses’ prepared holiday side dishes are becoming more popular, Acosta said, possibly the result of changing consumer habits.
“I think our customers today want to cook, but at the same time, they don’t want to spend the whole day cooking every component of their meal,” Acosta said. “They cook a turkey and pick up sides from our deli to save time.”
Max Jordan, a spokesman for Piccadilly, said Thanksgiving has become such a busy day for the Baton Rouge-based cafeteria chain that some locations have to bring in trailers to house all of the food they’re going to cook.
“Every year, demand is higher and higher,” he said. That includes everything from “turkey packs,” which include a whole bird or sliced breast meat, along with sides, for customers picking up quarts of their favorite Piccadilly dishes to put on the Thanksgiving table.
“We’ve got a track record,” Jordan said. “People have ordered from us for years and years.” Piccadilly has been selling turkey packs for at least 50 years, he said.
While family restaurants such as Piccadilly are places people associate with holiday meals, one place that will sell hundreds of side dishes this year is a little surprising. Woman’s Hospital has been allowing doctors, staff and volunteers to buy whole turkeys, whole pies and trays of sides such as cornbread dressing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes and broccoli rice casserole.
Margie Ricks, director of nutrition at Woman’s, said the service was launched more than 10 years ago and has grown. This year, the staff will prepare between 250 to 300 casseroles for staffers to pick up for their Thanksgiving dinner.
“Everybody’s life is so busy and we have such good food here on the regular cafeteria menu that people know and love and want for the holidays,” she said.
Woman’s has received a lot of acclaim from employees, patients and their families for the quality of food served at the cafeteria. Ricks said the hospital will offer dishes through the online delivery service Waitr “pretty soon.”
“At some point, we would like to expand these Thanksgiving dishes to the public,” she said.
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