Talking Turkey: One Bird's Domination Of The Market

Getting 90% of Americans to agree on anything is a minor miracle, but on Thursday, it will happen all over again: 90% of Americans eat turkey each Thanksgiving, says Carrie Duggan, brand manager for Butterball LLC.

Butterball, of course, leads the whole-turkey market, with anywhere from 20% to 30% share, she says. (Store brands are the next-biggest competitors.) And it remains one of the most seasonal businesses around. "About 70% of whole turkey sales happen in the month of November, and 60% are in the two weeks before Thanksgiving," she says. "And 90% of all whole turkeys are sold in November and December."

Duggan says a big part of the brand's image has been the Talk-Line, now in its 27th year. "The Talk-Line generates a lot of media, and the press we get from it is priceless," Duggan says. Staffed with six home economists (and yes, they're all ladies who look like they could handle any poultry crisis), the group typically fields as many as 100,000 calls per season.

But not much changes in terms of turkey-prep questions, as Americans continue to cook Thanksgiving meals as they always have. "Perhaps as many as 5% of Americans are now deep-frying their turkeys, and a few grill it. But we believe about 80% of people roast it in the oven."

And while she thinks a shift toward smaller households may be driving the slight increase in turkey breast sales, which are easier to cook, and contain only white meat, "the average size turkey has remained stable at 14.5 pounds."

Turkey seasonings vary by region. Garlic and sage turn up in more than 50% of Pacific-region turkeys, according to Butterball's polls. And cooks in the South Central region are most adventurous, and more likely to experiment with rosemary, paprika and cloves.

Trimmings are tradition-bound. Butterball's research has found that 86% of New Englanders list cranberry sauce among the side dishes they are most likely to serve, while Midwesterners favor classic dishes using potatoes, cheese, corn and grains. Southerners are more likely than other regions to serve pecan pie.

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