Let’s talk turkey: Grocers give inside look at Thanksgiving

Coborn’s Store Directors in Princeton, Kyle Wensmann (left) and Craig Zylka said Thanksgiving is the busiest time of year but also fun since the store prepares well and both customers and employees have good cheer.
Coborn’s Store Directors in Princeton, Kyle Wensmann (left) and Craig Zylka said Thanksgiving is the busiest time of year but also fun since the store prepares well and both customers and employees have good cheer.

PRINCETON – The hometown grocers Coborn’s of Princeton and Teal’s of Milaca agree that Thanksgiving is definitely the busiest time of the year and requires a lot of preparation across many departments to be ready for the food-centric holiday.
Coborn’s store director Kyle Wensmann and former Teal’s grocery manager Jim Pluimer both use the term “all hands on deck” when describing the efforts required to serve all the shoppers looking to make their holiday special.
Princeton plans, preps for turkey day
Wensmann came to the Princeton Coborn’s last August and has about eight years’ experience in the grocery business. He said Easter and Christmas run a close second for busiest times. While the other two holidays may not generate quite as much food sales volume, they don’t always fall on the same day each year like Thanksgiving.

The grocery team at Teals Market in Milaca relies on their extensive experience to make sure shoppers have all the products they need to make a happy Thanksgiving. Pictured are former, longtime grocery manager and now part-time employee Jim Pluimer at left with meat-department manager Clayton Voss.
The grocery team at Teals Market in Milaca relies on their extensive experience to make sure shoppers have all the products they need to make a happy Thanksgiving. Pictured are former, longtime grocery manager and now part-time employee Jim Pluimer at left with meat-department manager Clayton Voss.

“It’s pretty predictable what items you’ll need,” he said about Thanksgiving.
Turkeys, stuffing, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, French fried onions, bread and baked items top the list. Customers buy lots of pies, mainly pumpkin and apple, and massive amounts of bread. Wensmann said the store’s dollar buns are a top-selling item, and people will preorder the big 24-packs to be sure they have enough buns.
Wensmann said knowing how much of everything to order is more or less a gut feeling but relies on a lot of data points such as the previous year’s numbers and what items were on sale. Cranberries are another Thanksgiving staple, with about half of shoppers buying them fresh and the other half getting them canned.
While the store gets a lot of ahead-of-time orders for big families, church dinners and organizations, Wensmann said people “very much wait until the last minute” to shop. The store does occasionally run out of something small, but product-supply analysis takes place daily to determine need.
Wensmann said last year, the store sold approximately 20-40 premade, heat-and-eat turkey dinners and somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds of turkey. The store ordered four extra premade dinners last year in case anyone needed one last minute and ended up selling all four. Any frozen turkeys that don’t sell at Thanksgiving usually get scooped up for Christmas or can be rotated back into regular stock.
Wensmann said the suppliers also do a lot of planning for the season well before Corborn’s orders its turkeys about two months ahead of time. The most popular turkey size is 12-16 pounds.  Wensmann said the supply-chain economics are interesting, such as the maturity rate of turkeys and how long they take to enter the market, as well as the year there was avian flu. Coborn’s gives away many turkeys through its turkey-card program, which works by stamps earned per $10 grocery purchase.
He said while each product is different, the store may see a surge in sales anywhere between 10 percent and 500 percent depending on the item.
So what is the busiest department in the store? Wensmann said it’s the front end checking stations. He points out that while not every shopper visits the deli, meat department, bakery and produce section, all shoppers converge in the front to check out.
“All of us will do the checking, bagging and getting carts,” he said. “We rely very heavily on the float managers we have in the store.”
Coborn’s is open 24 hours, and Wensmann said they run a skeleton crew on major holidays. Thanksgiving includes a rush in the early part of the day as people pick up small items but is otherwise slow.
People volunteer for shifts and usually fill the staffing roster quickly. Some have no plans and prefer to work, while others will work at whatever time they are not eating with family.
He said an important aspect is to keep employee morale up and everyone happy. “We could not do what we do without them.”
The store puts out snacks and treats and prepares employees who have not yet experienced a grocery store holiday season. Wensmann said he remembers his first one as a bagger, which was overwhelming.
“It’s very different than a normal week,” he said.
The upside to the grocery chaos is that customers are in an exceptionally good mood and there is a lot of cheer and energy in the air, which is infectious and a phenomenon everyone wishes lasted all year.
Teal’s teamwork                    presents Thanksgiving
Pluimer served as the grocery manager at Teal’s for 33 years and now works there part-time in retirement; he has a total of 50 years’ experience in the grocery business. “I started on this block at the Red and White (former store in Milaca),” he said.
The store’s meat manager, Clayton Voss, has been there 30 years, and its bakery manager, Carol Helget, has 26 years’ experience. The store’s manager, Cathy Loidolt, has been there 10 years, and Pluimer said she is an outstanding leader. He said the employees’ collective experience as well as everyone’s teamwork make the store successful.
Pluimer said while the turkey-focused holiday is the store’s busiest time of year, everybody is smiling, pleasant and in the holiday spirit.
Pluimer also said ordering is predictable because Milaca shoppers do not change their menu, right down to the French fried onions that go on top of the green bean casserole.
Voss said he usually orders the turkeys in July. Last year the store sold about 8,000 pounds of frozen, Minnesota-grown turkeys in a range of sizes. He also cites the average size at about 12-16 pounds and said they go up to 26 pounds, though Pluimer can’t imagine wrestling one that big into an oven.
He said they don’t typically have too many turkeys leftover but don’t have any problem selling the ones that are. Some are sold to companies that order them as employee holiday gifts.
Helget said the store sees a huge spike in bread and pie sales – mostly apple, pumpkin and some pecan – as well as cookies. She roughly estimates that pie and bread sales “at least triple,” maybe even quadruple, as lots of people order special bread such as cloverleaf buns. Helget appreciates when people order ahead of time, but her job involves being ready for the demand no matter how and when it comes. She said immediately after Thanksgiving, as in the day after, the store begins taking cookie orders and preparing for its annual Cookie Walk.
The store is open 17 hours a day, seven days a week now, whereas it used to be open nine hours a day and not at all on Sunday or Thanksgiving. It opens until 1 p.m. on the holiday, and Pluimer said employees volunteer for shifts. People run in for small things  like butter, on Thanksgiving.
He said Loidolt does the schedule for the season and makes sure there are enough people on hand to cashier as needed. Pluimer said there are times when everybody comes to the front, which is called “all hands on deck.” He said every year the store employees learn a little bit more about how to organize and be proactive.
He can only remember one Thanksgiving when the store ran out of a needed item: the plastic turkey-cooking bags. Pluimer said he told the man that he could use a brown paper bag instead, which works much the same way a plastic bag does.  But the man thought that sounded like a crazy idea.
“I still remember the look on his face,” he said. “I felt so bad.”
Pluimer said everyone is “very good” at what they do and has the process down to a science, “Everybody has fun with Thanksgiving,” he said, “more so than any other holiday.”