Bad news: There’s a nationwide turkey shortage. The New York Times reports that 7 million turkeys (about 3.6 percent of the nation’s total) have been wiped out by the serious bird flu known as highly pathogenic avian influenza — thus far. As a result, turkeys will cost more and be less widely available for the fast-approaching Thanksgiving holiday. And at sandwich shops and butcher counters across Los Angeles, many owners already feel the strain. Some say they’ve had to switch suppliers; others have only been able to stock sliced and ground turkey intermittently, if at all; most worry that the issue will endure for months. As Olin Schneider, the vice president of operations at McCall’s Meat & Fish Co. in Los Feliz and Santa Monica puts it, “The deli meat world is, like, we need turkey.”
Zach Jarrett, the chef of Bub and Grandma’s Restaurant in Glassell Park, was originally planning to buy raw organic turkey breast to roast in-house for the two turkey sandwiches on the menu: the Turkey Trot (with Swiss, coleslaw, and Russian dressing inspired by a New Jersey sandwich he and owner Andy Kadin ate growing up) and the Pickacity (with shredded lettuce, red onion, pickles, mayo, and mustard). When the restaurant was about to open in September, he decided it would be too much work and pivoted to sourcing pre-roasted turkey instead. That’s when he became aware of the shortage: He couldn’t get any. “The first two weeks that we were open, we were able to get two cases in, which is 40 sandwiches’ worth,” Jarrett says.
Now, Jarrett orders at least a week in advance from three different suppliers in an attempt to stock enough supply. “It’s sort of like you cross your fingers and roll the dice and try to get four or five cases,” he says.
Over in Los Feliz, fans of All Time’s turkey sandwich have been asking the all-day restaurant why it’s disappeared from the menu. “Since we can’t get the good stuff, the sandwich is on hiatus,” the restaurant posted on Instagram, explaining that the turkey breast they favor won’t be available again until after Thanksgiving. Since only turkey and not chicken is affected by the avian flu, Jeff’s Table in Highland Park has swapped turkey for Mary’s chicken in two of its most popular offerings: the Hainan-style sandwich (with Persian cucumber, shallots, wild arugula, and garlic-chile crisp) and the yuzu kosho number (with avocado, arugula, and green chile-citrus aioli). The latter sandwich now comes with shredded chicken as opposed to sliced turkey because of a difference in texture.
Wax Paper, a sandwich shop with two locations — one in Chinatown, the other in Frogtown — came up against the same dilemma when they, too, were out of turkey for a couple of weeks and considering substitutions. “The chicken doesn’t slice, it chips,” co-owner Lauren Lemos explains. They chose to run a chicken salad sandwich instead. “Having a poultry option is absolutely essential for a sandwich shop,” she says.
Wax Paper was previously purchasing turkey from Mary’s, which has been badly affected by the shortage. Although they’ve since switched suppliers to Norbest, sales slumped during the period of time that they were without turkey. Wax Paper’s two top sellers are both turkey-based: the Garth Trinidad, which is served in Chinatown and comes with serrano-cabbage slaw, mandarin oranges, and miso-sesame aioli; and Frogtown’s Terry Gross with pepper jack cheese, cilantro-radish slaw, and tomatillo vinaigrette. Another top-seller is the vegetarian Ira Glass that’s offered at both locations and to which many customers add turkey. “It was a triple-whammy,” Lemos says.
“It’s tough because LA is a turkey town,” says Paul James, the owner of celebrity-endorsed local sandwich chain Uncle Paulie’s Deli. His turkey pesto sandwich is his second-best seller after the Italian sub. Luckily, his turkey supply has yet to be affected: Since he’s worked with the same purveyor for five years and sells a lot of turkey, his shop’s allocation is prioritized. James knows that this could change, however, and he’s also worried that he won’t be able to get whole turkeys for the Thanksgiving turkey drive he’s planning in collaboration with Undefeated, the mini-chain of sneaker stores.
Places with less consistent turkey supplies are facing backlash from customers. At Bub and Grandma’s, where the diner- and deli-inspired food is nostalgic, “some people just really want the thing they remember eating,” says Jarrett. In many cases, that’s a turkey sandwich. “It can be really hard to have a turkey person be like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m gonna get the ham today,’” he says. Sometimes those customers will go for the tuna sandwich instead, but oftentimes, the staff is “met with incredulity,” says Jarrett. “People are generally pretty dismayed. They assume it’s our mismanagement.”
Schneider at McCall’s agrees that “people love a turkey sandwich.” In addition to butchered meats, the shop makes two types of sandwiches, one of which is always turkey. The crowd favorite comes with manchego, iceberg lettuce, chopped pickled onions, and smoked paprika aioli — and McCall’s has been stockpiling deli turkey from their supplier Hobb’s in order to keep making it. Hobb’s supply is currently unreliable, however, and once McCall’s runs out of what it has, it may have to pivot to confit chicken legs or duck. “Whatever is available to meet that poultry need,” Schneider says. On the butchery side, the store hasn’t had access to turkey parts for months, including for the turkey they grind in-house. “People have a really hard time understanding that,” he says. “They’re like, ‘So can I get bone-in turkey breasts?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I can’t get you any parts. You can get a small bird, you can get a duck, you can get a guinea fowl, anything else. I just can’t do turkeys.”
Keeping turkey in stock amid the shortage is also an issue of maintaining quality. Jarrett says that all of the smaller distribution companies that carry the organic, nitrate-free turkey he desires can’t get enough product. He recalls a man from Sysco, the wholesale food corporation, coming into Bub and Grandma’s “like a devil’s agent,” insisting that they would never run out. Lemos says that they, too, could’ve “forced” turkey from a giant supplier like Butterball, but that it wouldn’t meet Wax Paper’s quality standards.
As Thanksgiving spirals closer, the shortage will remain a stressor for the owners and workers of sandwich and butcher shops. It’s important to note, however, that it’s safe to eat the turkey that’s already on the market. The issue is not that the avian flu is potentially contaminating already-slaughtered turkeys, but that live turkey flocks across the country are dying from the flu, and it takes time to raise more birds to keep up with demand. “We’re feeling it, everybody’s feeling it,” says Lou Marconda of Marconda’s Puritan Poultry at the Original Farmers Market. He’s not sure what to expect yet for Thanksgiving, but he wouldn’t be surprised if they received half as many of the birds they ordered back in May, or not all of the sizes they are hoping for.
Angelenos who have yet to reserve their Thanksgiving turkeys would be smart to do so now. Schneider says McCall’s has taken more preorders for Thanksgiving turkeys at this point in time than has historically been the case as consumers have become aware of the shortage. “I think you’ll see more people being like ‘Okay, I’ll just eat something else for Thanksgiving, I’ll eat a prime rib or I’ll eat a pork shoulder.’”