Takeout Thanksgiving meals on the rise

/ Source: The Associated Press

Everyone wants a nice Thanksgiving spread, but not everyone has the time — or culinary know-how — to cook the traditional turkey, dressing, veggies and deserts and get them on the table together.

Those who don't head to the grocery store.

More and more customers are buying complete Thanksgiving meals to take home, according to retailers and food-trend experts. Nearly every grocery store with a deli now offers the meals, which consumers can order in advance and pick up on Thanksgiving eve.

Last year, Fresh Market's 44 stores from Florida to Virginia sold a few hundred complete meals.

"This year, we sold several thousand," said spokesman Eric Blaesing. "We actually sold out."

Fresh Market and other chains declined to disclose exact numbers of holiday dinners sold, citing competitive reasons. But all said sales are on the rise.

"The aging baby boom population is really driving a lot of that," said Mindy McBain, who writes for The Shelby Report, of Gainesville, Ga., a grocery trade publication that tracks trends in the Southeast and Southwest.

"People don't have time to cook like they used to," McBain said. "The stores that are making a success out of it are providing high-quality turkey meals."

Fresh Market began offering complete meals last year, Blaesing said. The Greensboro-based chain charges $49.95 for a meal that serves six to eight people.

"With these big dinners, you have to order everything in advance," he said. "We buy products from vendors and assemble it at the store."

Fresh Market has "some really good pies," Blaesing said, and customers have said they don't tell their guests they are store-bought.

"What's interesting to me personally is you think about Thanksgiving being the home thing ... no more, baby," he said. "I would love to know how many people don't tell people" that dinner was ordered in.

Whole Foods stores have offered prepared dinners for five years, said Teresa Jones, North Carolina marketing manager for the Austin, Texas, grocery chain, which has 160 stores in 26 states.

The chain has a table in each store, Jones said, where an employee advises customers on how much and what to buy for their holiday dinner. A meal for eight costs $129.99. The price to feed 15 is $229.99.

Most of the 1,215 Food Lion stores in 11 Southeastern states have offered holiday meals for the last four years. The chain's Web site does not list a cost for the dinners.

Lowes Food has seen holiday dinner sales rise 30 percent over the past two years, spokeswoman Diane Blancato said. The Winston-Salem-based chain had been selling cooked turkeys for a decade, then branched into entire meals five years ago.

More than 80 Lowes Foods stores in the Carolinas sell a meal for as little as $34.99 for a 10-pound turkey with gravy and two side dishes.

"It is in direct response to what we see as an evolving customer need," Food Lion spokesman Jeff Lowrance said of its complete meal trade. "A lot of folks want a home-cooked meal but don't have time to prepare it."

Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a Rosemont, Ill.-based food industry information organization, said he had no data on the popularity of store-made Thanksgiving meals. However, he said, NPD's information shows that only one of three households that consumes turkey on Thanksgiving will have cooked it themselves — with many going to the homes of relatives to chow down.

"How can you make it convenient?" Balzer said. "This need for convenience is very real. It drives you out of the house."