Central Texas BBQ joints short on turkey, modifying menus

Helberg Barbecue is stockpiling whatever turkey they get for holiday orders
Published: Oct. 18, 2022 at 1:49 AM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Turkey is being taken off the menu at some local restaurants amid a nationwide turkey shortage caused by Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

With the holidays around the corner, one Waco-area restaurant is making adjustments to ‘meat’ the needs of customers.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Phillip Helberg, owner of Helberg Barbecue. “It’s been the source of a lot of sleepless nights recently.”

When Helberg does sleep, he’s dreaming about BBQ.

“It’s for sure a lifestyle, it’s a pretty incredible community to be a part of, so we’re all in,” said Helberg. “A hobby became a passion, became an obsession, and then eventually a business.”

In 2018, the Houston-native and his wife opened their own BBQ business with a food trailer outside of Pinewood Coffee Bar in Waco.

The next year, they moved out to a shop in Speegleville and opened that May.

The business survived the pandemic and supply chain issues, however, Helberg Barbecue is now facing another hurdle: a nationwide turkey shortage.

“I kind of feel like we’re pretty groomed and seasoned to deal with these kind of things, but this one definitely hurt,” said Helberg.

Known for their pesto-stuffed turkey, Helberg says the shortage is hitting them hard.

“It was actually the first menu item to even be highlighted or written about in Texas Monthly Magazine, and so that kind of put us on the map,” said Helberg. “We do a lot of turkey sales around Thanksgiving, we kind of bank on it, we use those sales, that revenue, to be able to close for a couple of days and to give our staff some much needed time off, and so the uncertainty of whether or not we’ll be able to provide that, and to provide for the families who are counting on us...we want to be able to come through for those people and deliver.”

According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, this Spring 5.4 million turkeys were depopulated to prevent the spread of HPAI, equating to about 2.5% of the U.S. commercial turkey industry in 2021.

A few weeks ago, Helberg put in an order for 15 boxes of turkey breasts: they only received two.

“That was the point in time where we says ‘there’s just no way we can do this,’” said Helberg.

As a result, they’ve taken turkey completely off of the in-store menu.

“We don’t want to do this, this isn’t ideal for us, we’d much rather have our turkey on the menu, we love it, our customers love it, we would have it there if we could get it,” said Helberg.

He says customers have been disappointed but are understanding.

“Most people understand, and in the meantime, we’ve been able to pivot and add herb-crusted boneless/skinless chicken thighs to our menu, it’s not 100% the same but it’s pretty close,” said Helberg. “We ran it this last week and it’s been very popular, so hopefully that gets us through until the shortage is over.”

Distributors say the shortage is expected to last until March or April of 2023.

In the meantime, Helberg has been working to find more freezer space to stockpile whatever turkey they do get in and reserve it for holiday turkey orders and pre-paid catering orders.

“We’re having to jump on things a lot quicker, and therefore we need to find freezer space to store those so that we can be sure to commit those turkeys to the people who are ordering them and not spoil by that time,” said Helberg. “We thaw them out about a week or two in advance of Thanksgiving and then we’ll brine them, and then we’ll smoke them a couple days out from Thanksgiving, and then we have a big pickup day the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”

Prices are also being impacted.

Helberg says, two years ago, he was paying $1/lb for whole turkeys: this year he’s having to pay $3/lb.

“Even though we don’t make as much on a whole turkey we’re selling for Thanksgiving as we would sliced by the pound here in store, we feel that’s more important,” said Helberg. “There are families who have grown to have our Thanksgiving turkey as part of their tradition every year, and we don’t want to let them down.”

For more on Helberg’s Thanksgiving offerings go here.