Central Texas BBQ joints short on turkey, menu changes

WACO, Texas (KWTX) – Turkey is being removed from the menu at some local restaurants amid a nationwide bird flu (HPAI) shortage.

With the holidays right around the corner, a Waco-area restaurant is making a “meat” fix to suit customers’ needs.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Phillip Helberg, owner of Helberg’s Barbecue. “It’s been the source of many sleepless nights lately.”

When Helberg sleeps, he dreams about barbecue.

“It’s definitely a lifestyle, it’s a pretty cool community to be a part of, so we’re all in,” Helberg said. “A hobby turned into a passion, into an obsession, and then into a business.”

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

The next year, they moved to a store in Spiegelville and opened in May.

The business has survived the pandemic and supply chain challenges, but Helberg Barbecue is now facing another obstacle: a nationwide turkey shortage.

“I feel like we’re pretty good and experienced enough to deal with stuff like this, but it definitely hurts,” Helberg said.

Helberg, known for his pesto-stuffed turkey, says the shortage is hitting them hard.

“It was actually the first menu item that was even featured or written about in Texas Monthly, and that’s how it put us on the map,” Helberg said. “We do a lot of turkey sales around Thanksgiving, we kind of bank on that, we use those sales, we use that revenue to be able to close for two days and give our employees some much needed rest and so the uncertainty of whether or not we’re going to be able to provide that, and provide for the families that are counting on us … we want to be able to reach out to those people and reach them.”

According to the US Department of Agriculture, this spring 5.4 million chickens were destroyed to prevent the spread of HPAI, which is equivalent to approximately 2.5% of the US commercial turkey industry in 2021.

A few weeks ago, Helberg ordered 15 boxes of turkey breast: they received only two.

“That was the moment we said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to do this,'” Helberg said.

As a result, they completely removed turkey from the store’s menu.

“We don’t want to do that, it’s not right for us, we’d rather have our turkey on the menu, we love it, our customers love it, if we could get it, we’d have it there,” Helberg said.

He says customers are disappointed but understand.

“Most people understand, and in the meantime, we’ve been able to add boneless/skinless chicken thighs to our menu, it’s not 100% the same, but it’s pretty close,” Helberg said. “We ran it last week and it was very popular, so hopefully that will get us through the gap.”

Distributors say the shortage will continue until March or April 2023.

In the meantime, Helberg is working to find more freezer space to store any turkey that comes in, reserving it for holiday turkey orders and make-ahead food orders.

“We’ve got to jump on top of things faster, and so we’ve got to find the freezer space to store them to make sure we get those turkeys to the people who order them and don’t get robbed by then,” he said. Helberg. “We thaw them about a week or two before Thanksgiving and then we brine them and we smoke them a few days after Thanksgiving and then we have the big day the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”

Prices are also affected.

Helberg says that two years ago, he paid $1/pound for a whole turkey: this year, he should pay $3/pound.

“Even though we don’t sell a turkey for Thanksgiving like we sell a pound here at the store, we think it’s more important,” Helberg said. “There are families that make our Thanksgiving turkey a part of their tradition every year, and we don’t want to let them down.”

Go to Helberg’s Thanksgiving Gifts for more information Here.

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