Thanksgiving to go: Local businesses seeing interest in different style of meal this year

If you want to know how local families plan to spend their Thanksgiving, there are few people who can offer a more informed perspective than the local butcher.

Jeff Cremer, owner of Cremer’s Meats in Dubuque, has spent recent weeks taking orders and preparing meals for local Thanksgiving celebrations. But as Thursday approaches, even he admits that it’s difficult to assess how the holiday will play out.

“This is my 20th Thanksgiving (at Cremer’s), but I feel like it is the first one I’ve done,” he said on Monday. “From the beginning, it’s been so hard to know what to expect.”

While the next few days remain a bit of a mystery, the ordering patterns of local customers have convinced Cremer that this will not be a typical Thanksgiving.

He said Cremer’s has taken a large number of smaller-sized orders — such as beef tenderloin dinner bundles, turkey breasts or two-pound pork roasts. Such orders suggest that more local residents will be celebrating Thanksgiving in smaller groups.

“We’ve had to consider, ‘What do we do for groups of two people or four people instead of just those large family gatherings?’” Cremer said.

As COVID-19 continues to loom large over the holiday season, businesses like Cremer’s Meats are playing a large role in Thanksgiving meals.

A recent, nationwide survey found that 20% of Iowans are planning on takeout or relying on meal kits for this year’s Thanksgiving meal. That figure is even higher in Wisconsin and Illinois, where 43% and 36% of families are opting for takeout options, respectively.

Cremer has aimed to provide a wide range of options for customers, including a “turkey dinner bundle” that includes a 12-pound Amish turkey, a bone-in ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, dinner rolls and pie. He said the bundle can serve gatherings of 12 to 15 people but speculated that some people are making the purchase, even if they can’t convene for traditional, large-scale gatherings.

“I think there are some situations where Grandma and Grandpa are frustrated and have just decided they are going to cook a meal anyway, even if they have to package it up and deliver it to people,” Cremer said.

Across the region, businesses and nonprofits alike are making adjustments.

At Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa in Galena, Ill., Thanksgiving meals have long been a popular attraction.

Steve Curtis, the resort’s director of food and beverage, said it became apparent six months ago that the holiday was going to be far different this year.

“Starting in May or June, we began planning for this,” he said. “We knew there would still be people interested in a Thanksgiving meal, but they would be changing what they are going to do (for the holiday) this year.”

Eagle Ridge typically provided two options: A massive buffet and large family meals — available for delivery or carryout — that serve eight to 10 people.

Curtis noted that there is virtually no demand for a buffet option given the realities of the pandemic.

Through its Woodlands Restaurant, however, the resort is offering its traditional, large take-home meals, as well as a smaller option geared toward individuals and smaller parties.

The altered approach seems to be paying off: Despite a decrease in the number of people staying at Eagle Ridge during the holiday, the demand for food is on par with previous years, Curtis said.

Now, the staff just has to worry about getting prepared in time.

“We start a couple days in advance getting the prep work done,” Curtis said. “On Thanksgiving Day, it is an all-day affair.”

Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque also is adapting to the unique trends associated with Thanksgiving in 2020.

Its for-profit arm, Convivium HomeFresh, has seen an uptick in orders for its prepared meals. Convivium co-founder Leslie Shalabi said that these meals aren’t designed to serve huge groups of people.

“We are focusing more on individual servings,” she said. “We know that more people are staying home this year and not doing a giant meal.”

The nonprofit side of Convivium also is keeping busy as Thanksgiving approaches.

Shalabi said Convivium has received orders for about 80 pies this year, more than triple the orders it had received the prior year.

She noted that a group of a half-dozen volunteers came into Convivium Sunday to make sure all of the pies were prepared in time for the holiday.

Shalabi noted that proceeds from the desserts are used to support a Convivium program that provides free casseroles to families in need. She believes that customers’ desire to help others has helped fuel higher sales.

The unique circumstances surrounding the pandemic also have played a role in higher sales, as area residents seek to sweeten up a holiday season soured by COVID-19.

“We know it is a strange year,” she said. “People are enjoying the holidays differently.”