Is it time for restaurateurs to really talk turkey?

| by S.A. Whitehead
Is it time for restaurateurs to really talk turkey?

People tend to have strong feelings about where they eat and what they eat on Thanksgiving in the U.S. After all, this is the most American of holidays when you think about it and most of us were brought up thinking that the only place for Thanksgiving is home or at a family member's house. But the fact of the matter is that Thanksgiving is really, at its core, a holiday about eating out with friends, isn't it? In fact, the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and Wampanoag was something a little like a progressive dinner formed around the idea of celebrating friendship, generosity and just basic survival, in a sometimes very harsh world. 

So why don't more restaurateurs really take advantage of this holiday as a marketing opportunity? I mean, let's face it, cooking for hoards of people in the middle of the week just isn't quite in sync with today's U.S. culture. Plus frankly, as one whose only attempt at "having Thanksgiving" at her house ended in an oily pile of over-marinated meat swimming around a still-standing turkey carcass, I can assure you that there are plenty of us who would quickly get behind a movement to move Thanksgiving out of the home. 

And it may already be happening. One in 10  Americanswill head to a restaurant for the annual November feast,according to the NRA, and they have plenty to choose from . A quick online search reveals that loads of restaurants are open this Thursday. Likewise, according to a report from Technomic this week, the nation's so-called meal kit industry is growing in ways it has not done before, particularly around this season's holidays. 

And lest you doubt that business marketing can truly change a whole culture and its practices, I would ask that you look no further than the diamond industry for proof otherwise. Before the 1930s, the idea of a diamond wedding ring was pretty much reserved for the wealthy alone and not that prevalent. But then in the 1940s, De Beers changed all that with a marketing push that gave birth to an industry, as well as the cultural norm that is today's diamond wedding ring. In other words, like it or not, there is precedent for this kind of societal shift a la marketing campaign. 

But, it's un-American!
Now I know there are some reading who are swearing at me and pronouncing that these thoughts are utterly "un-American." But again, I would refer you back to the fact that going out to eat is how Thanksgiving started in the first place. Plus, what better example of American capitalism could there be than an industry's wholehearted embrace of a marketing opportunity? Particularly one that seems custom-made to cater to people of all tastes, incomes and preferences, a.k.a. the American "melting pot." That means that all sectors of food service could benefit from this type of push.

In the quick-service realm...
Let's not pretend that we all have the financial wherewithal to plunk down the kind of cash necessary for a full-course fine dining meal with all the accouterment and staff. Let's also not pretend that we all have holidays off from work. For many — restaurant staffers,convenience clerks, first responders and all those involved in keeping our power and water flowing — Thanksgiving is just another day of the work week, only this one has precious few places to drive through for a meal. 

QSRs could easily capitalize on these audiences who want to uncomplicate the holiday for either reasons of employment, preference or just plain ol' inability to take their eyes of the football action on TV. QSRs could use Thanksgiving as a great day to do something special for customers like these through LTOs that revolve around the celebrated flavors of the season, as many do now, but in a bigger way. 

But let's take it a step further and think about creating special family or "we-still-have-to-work" packages just for Thanksgiving? Perhaps,packaged deals that can be reserved ahead of time for pick-up or delivery that morning? It could be anything from the mere foundational elements of a Thanksgiving meal to special desserts, sides or other ways to augment dishes prepared at home or elsewhere. 

Just imagine, too, the social media promotion opportunities. For instance, what about Instagram  competitions where a chain's customers try to outdo each others' embellishments on their restaurant-purchased Family Turkey Day value packs? Also think of the community-based marketing and philanthropic possibilities with this type of annual promotion where guests can help those in need, while simultaneously feeding themselves. 

A pizza Thanksgiving
Concepts that revolve around pizza could own a nice chunk of Thanksgiving business by building new themed LTOs for this time of year that harken back to the original event. For instance, ever had authentic American Indian fry bread? Why couldn't that be adapted to a pizza crust? And what's stopping turkey from being a pizza topping? Or pumpkin, which isalready proving to be a phenomenal pizza embellishment in the view of many culinary experts. 

Fast Casual's take on Turkey Day
For fast casual concepts, too, the possibilities for this holiday promotionally seem nearly endless. Catering businesses, alone, attached to fast casual brands could benefit greatly by using this holiday to build their customer bases for year-round business. And by that, I refer to not just catering of Thanksgiving meals, but also to all those office- and club-based celebrations that occur in the days before the true big day of the official Thanksgiving event. 

The bottom line is,at a time, when the hugely competitive food service industry is getting more competitive than ever, and our work-day lives are getting more hectic than ever, this seems like a great, virtually untapped opportunity for the restaurant industry. After all, the most successful businesses  ask what their customers need and want, and then work to provide it.

Right now, our culture appears to be begging for a little "assist" on this holiday of gratefulness. Maybe now is also the time for restaurateurs to make new moves and give Americans something else to be thankful for -- not having to cook, or at least cook everything on Thanksgiving.


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Catering, Customer Service / Experience

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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