For many American home cooks, Thanksgiving is an annual kitchen frenzy of alchemy and algorithms complete with 12-hour days at the stove and a refrigerator-shelf-stacking strategy that calls to mind a game of Tetris. Even those whose usual favorite thing to make for dinner is “reservations” spend weeks planning menus, churning cranberry sorbet, hunting down white peppercorns and trussing twine.
But all that effort is a leisurely turkey trot compared to the logistical operations food retailers mount for the busiest shopping week of the year. At the city’s Whole Foods Markets, the week before T-day is an endurance run crossed with a contact sport, a tactical team undertaking akin to scaling Everest.
“We actually start planning right after the holiday is over,” says Sam Fishman, Store Team Leader at the Whole Foods Market in Union Square. Scarcely has the stuffing-cube dust cleared, and his own turkey’s tryptophan left his system, when team members start deconstructing the week’s failures and successes—and begin strategizing for next year. “We write very detailed recaps of what happened, what went well, what problems could be avoided next year.”
What sort of problems? “Well last year there was aisle number 4, which I took to calling the belly of the beast,” says Fishman. Aisle 4 spends 51 quiet weeks a year housing baking supplies and jarred herbs and spices. But last year, during the week leading up to T-Day, it was crammed with adrenaline-fueled Manhattanites on a rosemary reconnaissance mission. “There are a lot of small products packed into that small space, which led to a lot of people also being packed into that small space all week. This year we’ll move things around to create a better flow.”
Such recommendations are the subject of serious strategy sessions held throughout the year, and, by September, stores are finalizing product placement, overflow storage, refrigeration issues and a staffing schedule that would make a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of snow look easy.
Some customers place orders in advance or chart their kitchen game plan with on-staff advisors at the so-called “holiday table,” but Rebecca Ulanoff, marketing team leader at the Union Square store, says most wait until the week of. “Then things kick in and we are there with a phone in each hand and a headset on.”
Ulanoff insists she enjoys the rush—”It’s like the Super Bowl for us”—but Fishman admits to some pregame butterflies: “I’m always a little nervous that things won’t go according to plan, that we might run out of something.”
In a week when customer traffic is up 40 percent, some ingredients are bound to be in short supply, so the city’s six stores stay in close touch, monitoring sweet potato reserves the way the Federal Reserve watches interest rates. Should the stock of an important ingredient dip, says Fishman, “we run product to a store in need.” More than once James Zola, meat coordinator for the Northeast region, has had to locate a turkey of a particular size and drive it to the store himself.
Some DIY-obsessed customers cube bread for stuffing and render lard for pie crust, but Gotham is the capital of takeout, and many want their green beans almondine to go: Andrew Roberts masterminds the prepared foods department, which, that week, sells 400,000 pounds of roast turkey, 75,000 pounds of mashed potatoes, 22,000 pounds of cranberry sauce, 6,000 gallons of gravy and 31,000 pies. He says his game is on.
“We spend the year planning and we are ready. We know things are going to start happening in the second week in November and not stop until after Thanksgiving Day, but I love it. Everyone is so holiday crazy and excited, it’s like being at a sporting event,” he says, sounding like a coach whose players have their drills down. “My team looks forward to it.”
While home cooks fret over gravy separators and instant-read thermometers, his staff faces tests of a different feather. The biggest? “Customers who order from one store and then pick up at another. But you deal.”
One way they deal is by getting “all hands on deck”: upper management from corporate offices abandon the boardroom to join the ranks at cash registers and loading docks. Says Nicole Wescoe, Northeast regional vice-president of operations: “Our region closes the offices, and all regional folks are in the stores, working the holiday pickup table, running turkeys out to the floor, in the bakery or bagging groceries. I have spent many a holiday helping run turkeys from the cooler.”
The day before Thanksgiving and again on T-Day morning, Fishman directs traffic and answers questions ranging from, “Is there such a thing as local Idaho potatoes?” to “How do I cook Brussels sprouts?” (“I tell them my recipe with bacon and black pepper”) and sometimes becomes part of the display as “they stack aluminum trays in my arms,” he laughs.
When the doors finally close, they head home to eat (Zola and Roberts serve Whole Foods pre-roasted turkeys, natch). But even as they savor the pecan-praline pumpkin cheesecake, thoughts inevitably turn to next year’s Thanksgiving, just 364 days away.
Lisa McLaughlin’s work also appears in Time magazine. She is determined to master pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving but will probably order a backup just in case.