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Demand heats up for catered Thanksgiving meals


In the days before Thanksgiving, not everyone will cut up bread loaves for stuffing, brine a turkey or top a green bean casserole with onion rings.

Many Sonoma County residents are ordering fully prepared dinners from supermarkets and caterers who increasingly are offering foodie ingredients and brand-name birds.

The complete holiday dinner business is moving upscale, even as companies say demand keeps growing.

"We're elevating the service on everything," said Teejay Lowe, CEO of G&G Supermarkets in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.

G&G has offered a complete Thanksgiving dinner for three decades. Its traditional dinner, featuring a 12 pound, oven roasted turkey, starts at $59.95.

But for the first time this year the company also will sell a "Sonoma County gourmet turkey dinner," featuring a 12 pound Willie Bird free range turkey, Italian bread stuffing with fresh sage, a brandy marinated cranberry sauce, white truffle Yukon gold mashed potatoes, other side dishes and a Kozlowski Farms pumpkin pie. The price: $99.

And for those who like the idea of doing a little giving while they're getting, G&G's holiday dinners this year will raise money for the Council on Aging's Meals on Wheels program. The supermarket has teamed up with the council's Stag?gourmet food service to make some of its Thanksgiving side dishes.

Good estimates are hard to find on the number of people who don't cook their own Thanksgiving dinners.

The National Restaurant Association predicts that 30 million Americans will eat out or buy restaurant takeout for the holiday. Thanksgiving restaurant dining has held steady in recent years, but the takeout business likely has increased, said spokeswoman Annika Stensson.

Supermarkets say they see growth in the sale of complete holiday dinners, as well as for separate precooked turkeys and ready-to-heat side dishes.

"It's incredible. We sell more dinners every year," said Roxanne Abruzzo-Backman, food service coordinator for Cotati-based Oliver's Markets. "We increase at least 10 to 15 percent every year."

The company's three stores will sell about 450 precooked birds this Thanksgiving from Sonora-based Diestel Turkey Ranch. Many, but not all, will be sold as part of a complete dinner for $109.99, with the 10-12 pound turkey needing only to be warmed and browned in the oven.

"They come as a blond bird," Abruzzo-Backman said.

Over the years, Oliver's has expanded the holiday side dishes that customers can buy at its hot bar. Some will buy them to supplement Thanksgiving meals and leftovers. But the side dishes are already out for sale "and people are already buying them," she said.

Most of the county's supermarkets offer complete holiday dinners from Thanksgiving through New Years. The meals, which often serve up to eight people, appeal to those who fear they can't successfully pull off the turkey dinner, as well as those who prefer to spend their time visiting relatives and friends rather than making food.

Many retailers maintain the price remains a good value when you factor in the work involved. As a comparison, the American Farm Bureau Federation last week estimated that the average cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people prepared completely at home this year will be $49.04. The price of the biggest-ticket item, a 16-pound turkey, was estimated at $21.76.

Companies offering complete meals locally include West Sacramento-based Raley's. Its stores offer a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with a 10-12 pound Butterball turkey for $59.99, but also a higher-end dinner with a 10-12 pound Diestel turkey, ciabatta bread stuffing and roasted citrus orange glazed sweet potatoes for $109.99.

In the last five years, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods has added several dinners and side dishes to the menu to complement its traditional turkey and ham dinners, which each start at $99.99.

The newer offerings include an organic heirloom turkey dinner, complete with a 16-18 pound bird, herb stuffing, mashed regular and sweet potatoes, more dishes and two kinds of pies ($279.99). Also available are a prepared vegan dinner for two that includes a field roast en croute and olive oil smashed potatoes ($39.99); and a Health Starts Here dinner for four featuring stuffed acorn squash, plus no oil, no salt mashed potatoes and baked apples ($79.99).

The 40 Whole Foods stores in Northern California and Reno will sell about 20,000 precooked Diestel turkeys for Thanksgiving, said Jimmy Monaco, the regional prepared foods coordinator.

While some of the cooking is done by outside vendors, in-store staff members already are making such side dishes as green beans with shallots, apricot-glazed sweet potatoes, broccoli/cheddar potato gratin, roasted butternut squash salad, and weather permitting, a Dungeness crab/brie macaroni and cheese.

"If you're looking to indulge, that's one of the ones to get," Monaco said of the crab dish.

Among caterers, Feast Catering of Santa Rosa is offering its first complete Thanksgiving dinner packages.

One dinner features a precooked 12-14 pound Diestel turkey and includes a stuffing of roasted green apple, celery, chestnuts, and sourdough bread; a salad of slow stewed spiced pears and celery with hazelnuts; small batch mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and roasted garlic with Strauss cream; two types of cranberries; other dishes; and a dozen pumpkin pie-filled tartlets topped with spiced praline. The price: $235.

Feast also will offer a dinner with a fresh, uncooked 12-14 pound organic turkey and similar side dishes for $225.

Feast owner and executive chef Jesse McQuarrie said he previously has catered Thanksgiving dinners for winery owners and felt there would be interest for similar prepared meals. He is limiting production to 150 dinners and focusing on familiar Thanksgiving foods, though he intends to "put a little spin on them."

"It's really fun food to cook and our staff gets a kick out of it," McQuarrie said.

G&G Supermarkets' holiday dinners will offer many customers their first taste of foods prepared by the Council on Aging's Stag?gourmet food service.

Stag?— which rhymes with "Taj" in Taj Mahal — is selling prepared meals at a half-dozen supermarkets and other outlets in Sonoma and Marin counties. All proceeds benefit the council's Meals on Wheels program.

Charles Lindner, the council's executive chef, said he began the food service more than a year ago to raise more money to improve the quality of meals delivered to senior citizens.

G&G "really helped get it off the ground," Lindner said. The company's stores sell Stag?meals and this year Lowe asked Lindner to prepare side dishes for the roughly 250 holiday dinners it will sell.

Lowe said working with Stag?was an easy choice once he tasted Lindner's cooking.

"He is first-class, top-notch," Lowe said. "He always uses the best ingredients and settles for nothing less."

Marrianne McBride, president and CEO of the Council on Aging, suggested the dinners will provide shoppers a unique opportunity.

"While you're doing your Thanksgiving shopping," she said, "you're feeding a senior as well."