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Cornish hens and restaurant meals: What Thanksgiving looks like in a pandemic

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This year, instead of the traditional turkey, Nicole Beckler’s Thanksgiving table will feature two Cornish hens: the perfect sized birds for a dinner for two.

Beckler, a travel agent based in Florida, downsized her dinner after deciding against flying to New Jersey to celebrate the holiday with her family.

“Since New Jersey is kind of locking down again, I thought it best to stay here,” she said.

Like Beckler, many Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving differently this year. Health experts have warned against traveling home or gathering in large groups as the number of new Covid-19 cases in the U.S. explodes. But celebrating Thanksgiving — even in a different way — could also lift spirits after a stressful year.

“Showing gratitude in even small ways can reduce stress and provide hope for the future,” said Barbara Fiese, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.

Kroger’s internal data science and analytics firm found that 43% of shoppers plan to spend the holiday only with their immediate family. Retailers such as Walmart-owned Sam’s Club have responded by stocking smaller turkeys and shrinking their packages of yeast rolls.

Struggling restaurants see the break with tradition as an opportunity to attract customers who don’t want to labor over turkey, stuffing and all of the side dishes for a much smaller party.

Bayan Ko, a Chicago restaurant that fuses Cuban and Filipino cuisine, is among the restaurants selling Thanksgiving feasts for the first time. For $195, customers will receive the restaurant’s take on the holiday meal, which includes three types of meat, four side dishes and flan for dessert.

Thanksgiving meals prepared by restaurants don’t come cheap, especially when compared with the average cost of preparing the meal at home. This year, according to estimates from the American Farm Bureau Federation, a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people costs an average of $46.90 when the ingredients are bought at the grocery store. But customers are looking to offload the stress of cooking the turkey, as well as support local businesses.

“We’re having fun, so it’s livening up our spirits as well,” said Bayan Ko co-owner Raquel Quadreny.

The restaurant sold out of its Thanksgiving packages, with many going to regular customers, according to Quadreny.

“What we made in one day is more than we’ve been making every week since Covid cases got worse in Illinois,” she said.

As Covid cases in Chicago have surged in recent weeks, Quadreny estimates that its sales have been cut in half. City officials outlawed indoor dining once again at the end of October, with the state following suit shortly after. Bayan Ko never reopened its indoor dining room in the summer or fall, choosing instead to draw customers to its outdoor patio.

Summit House in Summit, New Jersey, has also been exercising caution in light of the recent surge in cases. Thanksgiving arrives a week after the restaurant opted to suspend in-person dining, both indoor and outdoor. Instead, it’s focusing on its grab-and-go business, which includes preordered meal packages for the holidays.

The restaurant’s holiday packages started with its Mother’s Day bundle this year and will continue with meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Owner Dylan Baker said that about 200 Thanksgiving dinners will be prepared by Summit House.

And for the restaurants that have been selling Thanksgiving dinners for years, slow kitchens mean that they can take on more orders than usual.

Black-Eyed Sally’s in Hartford, Connecticut, has been offering Cajun-fried turkey dinners for more than 15 years. This year, the eatery also cut its turkeys in halves or in thirds in response to consumers looking for smaller meals. Varano said that they cut off their orders this year at 150, 50% higher than its usual number.

“Since business has been so terrible, it’s nice to know at least this week we’re going to get some sales into the register with the holiday takeout,” said James Varano, owner of Black-Eyed Sally’s.

And restaurants are continuing to look ahead to the next holiday for another boost in sales. Black-Eyed Sally’s and Summit House will be making Christmas dinners. Summit House will also offer a prime rib package throughout December. Bayan Ko is planning on creating a bundle for New Year’s and is weighing another one for Christmas.

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