Meat Market: How One Ohio Butcher Moves 400 Turduckens by Mail

The turducken was reportedly invented in 1984 by a specialty butcher in Louisiana.

Photograph by Billy Delfs for Businessweek.com
Last year, Danny Catullo stopped advertising his butcher shop’s mail-order turduckens online three weeks before Christmas. He was afraid he couldn’t keep up with demand for the holiday delicacy, which his Poland (Ohio)-based Catullo Prime Meats creates by cutting out the breastbones of turkeys and filling the cavity with a duck, a boneless chicken, and apple sausage stuffing.

Catullo, 31, is forecasting sales of 400 turduckens from the lead-up to Thanksgiving through the days before Christmas. Call it 1,200 birds, maybe 6,000 pounds of fowl. While that’s nothing for mail-order meat purveyors such as Allen Brothers or Omaha Steaks, which can run through 1 million pounds of dry ice during a single holiday season, it’s a lot for Catullo.

The third-generation butcher shop must balance its mainstay brick-and-mortar business with growing online sales. Catullo expects to double his staff to 40 workers by the end of the holiday season. He’ll be burning the candle at both ends to keep up. “There are going to be nights that I’m here until midnight, making turducken and jamming to Adele,” he says.

The first Catullo to run a meat counter was Danny’s grandfather, Daniel, who learned his trade during a stint as a butcher in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Danny bought the shop from his father and uncle in 2007, taking over a business that was still run very much like a traditional butcher shop. Like other young owners of old companies, he saw an opportunity to build the business online by sprucing up the company’s website and experimenting with online sales.

Catullo’s first idea was to undercut big-city butchers on the high-end steaks that the shop is known for in the Youngstown, Ohio, area. That proved a tougher sell than such Rust Belt delicacies as pumpkin-style brats and paprika Slanina—a Hungarian pork treatment that resembles bacon. Also popular: turduckens.

The mash-up fowl has a long culinary history. “Take a plump quail, seasoned with truffles, and made tender by having been put into champagne,” instructs the author of a French recipe printed in an Australian newspaper in 1891. “You put it carefully inside a young Bresse chicken, then sew up the opening, and put dabs of butter all over the chicken. Again, you put the chicken inside a fine Berri turkey, and roast the turkey very carefully before a bright fire. What will be the result!”

What indeed? In the U.S., the turducken was an invention of Cajun cuisine. Online specialty foods retailer Goldbely says the turducken was invented in 1984 by a Maurice (La.)-based butcher called Herbert’s Specialty Meats. Football fans may associate the bird(s) with retired NFL commentator John Madden, who liked to talk turducken on Thanksgiving broadcasts. In any case, Catullo sold 13 turduckens in 2010, his first year online. Orders increased the next year after Pepto Bismol aired a television commercial about “nature’s majestic beast.

That left Catullo to solve the problem of getting stuffed birds out the door. Catullo sets aside a chunk of the previous year’s holiday sales to cover the next year’s upfront costs, which include staff and shipping materials. He won $5,000 in a contest sponsored by FedEx and used the money to experiment with cold shipping. The average turducken weighs 15 pounds and goes out with eight pounds of dry ice. Catullo has shipped meats as far as Alaska and Hawaii.

The birds don’t debone themselves, so Catullo brings on extra meat cutters for the holidays, who slice, stuff, freeze, and pack the poultry. To avoid having all the orders due on the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas, he offers discounts to customers who sign up for early delivery. He also eats some shipping costs to keep online prices in line with the $70 he charges in the brick-and-mortar store. (More frugal—or less hungry—shoppers can buy “chiduckeys,” which is a turkey breast stuffed into a half a duck stuffed into a chicken; once you start making hybrid fowl, it’s hard to stop.)

Space limitations may be the biggest challenge. Catullo doesn’t have a warehouse to store frozen birds, so most of its turduckens are made in late-night prep sessions and then frozen to be shipped within days. Last year, the late-night crew ran out of bread it needed to make stuffing for turduckens. The local grocery stores were closed, so they knocked on the door of a nearby coffee house that was getting ready for the next day’s business. “We were like, ‘Dude, can we have some bread?’” Catullo says. “We sent over some bacon to thank him.”

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