What's next trendy food? Some farmers talk turkey

November 25, 1991|By Eben Shapiro | Eben Shapiro,New York Times News Service

Riding on the tail feathers of the chicken, turkeys have surged in popularity in the last decade, and now turkey farmers have their eyes on a glittering prize: the potentially lucrative market of fast-food chains and restaurants.

Dreaming of McTurkey, turkey farmers are grinding up meat and experimenting with spices and seasonings in the quest for a place on America's menus. The industry needs a lift, as overenthusiastic growers have produced too many turkeys, driving prices to their lowest level in recent memory.

"We are talking to major chains," said Thomas E. Howe, president of Butterball Turkey Co., a Conagra Inc. subsidiary and the nation's largest turkey concern.

Mr. Howe predicted that a major chain would begin testing a turkey burger within six months, although he declined to identify the companies Butterball is working with.

But not all chains are willing to talk turkey, even though consumption of turkey has doubled since 1980, with the average American eating 19 pounds this year. The overwhelming share of that turkey is consumed at home.

At Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, Steven Provost, a spokesman for the Pepsico chain, said: "Our basic philosophy is, if it doesn't cluck and have feathers, we are not interested. My official rule book says a turkey gobbles, and therefore it falls outside our sphere of interest."

But other chains are more receptive.

At Wendy's International Inc. in Dublin, Ohio, Denny Lynch, a spokesman, said the company was testing a turkey burger and a grilled turkey sandwich.

"We are very serious about the product," he said. "It is not just something that we are casually looking at." He said turkey might be tested at some Wendy's restaurants next year.

Howe of Butterball said the company was working on a sliced turkey breast sandwich for fast-food chains, as well as the turkey burger.

At McDonald's Corp., Melissa Oakley, a spokeswoman, said: "We are looking at turkey, just as we are looking at a number of ideas and ingredients."

Michael Evans, a spokesman for Burger King, said, "Given the nutrition concerns of consumers, we have had discussions with turkey suppliers."

While the chains are cagey about discussing their plans, Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a food consulting firm in Chicago, said: "Every one of the turkey processors is working with every one of the fast-food chains. There is activity on turkey even if it is not all visible."

Wampler-Longacre Turkey Inc., a large turkey producer, has been working with Wendy's to develop a turkey version of the broiled chicken sandwich.

"We are targeting fast-food more specifically because of the volume they make up," said James L. Mason, president of Wampler. "We are trying to go after it more aggressively."

One obstacle is that "everybody still thinks turkey is only a holiday meal," Mason said.

On earlier visits to fast-food operators, Mason said he was told, "We need something that works 365 days a year."

But the tide may be turning. Hardee's has been selling a basic turkey sandwich since September, and the company said it was pleased with the response so far.

Growers are also optimistic because California, a state known for

starting food trends, has the highest per-capita turkey consumption in the nation, at 25 pounds a person. That compares, nationally, with 67.6 pounds a person for beef and 75.7 pounds for chicken, according to the National Turkey Federation, which compiled estimates from the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Most of the increase in turkey consumption has taken place in homes; the federation, a trade group in Reston, Va., says 92 percent of the turkey consumed is prepared at home.

But if there has been no breakthrough yet at the big chains, turkey is the main course at some smaller outlets.

Stuff 'n Turkey, based in Owings Mills, has 20 outlets around the country offering a menu of turkey Caesar salad, turkey taco salad, turkey pasta and traditional turkey sandwiches. Alan Morstein, the company president, said he planned to have 40 stores by next year and 150 stores in five years.

"Turkey is the food for the '90s," he said.

Mr. Paul, the Chicago food consultant, commented, "I haven't seen a turkey fajita yet, but I'm sure we will."

But Mr. Paul said a gap remained between the dream and the delivery.

"The grilled turkey breast is still a fairly dry product," he said. "There is still a lot of menu development to be done before it becomes a mainstream product."

A breakthrough at the restaurants would provide a needed lift for turkey growers, who are suffering from overproduction and depressed prices.

The price paid to growers has fallen to about 60 cents a pound, slightly below what it costs to raise a turkey.

In the last decade, some of the nation's largest food companies -- including Conagra, Sara Lee, Hormel and Philip Morris' Oscar Mayer -- have bought turkey companies, partly as a hedge against a decline in their red-meat operations.

These big companies have valuable supermarket connections that help insure wider distribution.

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