Greenberg Smoked Turkeys: An inside look at a Thanksgiving tradition

Published on Monday, 23 November 2015 15:24 - Written by ROY MAYNARD, rmaynard@tylerpapar.com

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Smoke billows out of the tightly packed steel room like the rush of an oncoming holiday season. Inside the smokehouse - really one of a series of smoke- and heat-filled chambers - racks of turkeys are transforming into holiday goodness.

Sam Greenberg, 57, waits for the smoke to clear, then holds up a drop-light to a row of birds, now turning a deep mahogany.

“This is a business built on doing it the way it’s always been done,” he said. “The real challenge is not to change anything.”

As Thanksgiving nears, one of Tyler’s most iconic businesses is ramping up production. A bank of more than 40 telephone operators are taking orders for a Greenberg Smoked Turkey, his one and only product.

“We’re still looking for a few good folks,” Greenberg said. “We have about 45 or 50 hired, and we’re still hiring.”

That’s because the season is now in full swing.

“We start the process in September,” Greenberg explains. “We send a letter out the day after Columbus Day, reminding folks to place their orders. That’s usually around the middle of October.”

Volume really picks up about the second week of November.

“And then we stay very, very busy until the Tuesday before Thanksgiving,” he said. “We get a lull after that, for a week or 10 days, and then about Dec. 7, it starts back up. And we go nonstop until Christmas.”

FAMILY BUSINESS

Greenberg’s grandfather smoked turkeys in the family’s barn in the 1930s. In the early 1940s, Greenberg’s father filled their first unsolicited order - a request for six turkeys, to be sent to far-away Dallas.

“This would have been my dad’s 76th season,” Greenberg said. “But back then, it was all done out of the barn. My parents built this facility in the 1950s, and I’ve expanded it. We started with 10 smokehouses, and I added 10.”

But little else has changed - and that’s the point, he explains. Even the spice mix, which he’s understandably a little secretive about - is the same.

“It’s a balance,” he said of the company’s seasoning. “People like it. I’ve had people call me and complain that their turkey is too smoky - I don’t know what they were expecting - but I’ve never had anyone call and say they didn’t like the spices we use.”

Nor has the company automated any of the production line. Turkeys are still trimmed by hand, seasoned by hand, hung in the smokehouses by hand and packaged by hand. That keeps quality up and ensures a 2015 Greenberg turkey will look and taste like a 1945 Greenberg turkey.

What Greenberg’s grandfather and father couldn’t have foreseen is the boom the company experienced when Oprah Winfrey named Greenberg Smoked Turkey as one of her “favorite things.” The smoked turkeys also were featured on “Good Morning America,” in Bon Appetite and Southern Living magazines and in the New York Times.

It’s a family business, but he doesn’t have his own children working for him - yet.

“It’s not a choice for them right now,” he said of his son, 24, and daughter, 21. “I want them to work somewhere else first and see how other businesses run. If later on they decide they want to come here, we’ll talk about it then.”

Greenberg adds that when he calls it a family business, he doesn’t mean just his own family. He points to a worker readying boxed birds for shipping.

“That’s Jerry Cole,” he said. “His father worked for my father. Now he works for me. And I think five of Jerry’s children, and maybe some of his grandchildren, work here, too.”

MAKING MAGIC

Each of the 2,500 turkeys smoked each day - for a annual total of more than 200,000 - in this East Tyler facility starts as a bagged, frozen bird - just like the ones consumers buy at the grocery store.

“We’ll process these tonight, take them out of the boxes and bags and let water run over them to thaw,” he said. “We trim everything off that’s not edible. There’s not much left of a wing after it’s smoked, so we take that off. It would just be extra weight.”

After the birds are trimmed, they go to the spicing table.

“This is where the magic happens,” he said.

The spices are rubbed into two slits in the breast and under the skin. Greenberg gets a little cagey about how long his turkeys are in the smokehouses; that’s understandable. There are many smoked turkeys, but only one Greenberg.

“I will say it’s low and slow,” he says. “We use hickory and some pecan. We go through a cord and a half of wood per day. And that’s the only heat in the smokehouse. There’s no artificial heat.”

Once they’re smoked, then cooled, they go to a production line for weighing, bagging and boxing.

There is one automated process in the line, Greenberg conceded. The only machine on the line serves one purpose - it puts two staples in the boxes.

Aside from that, a Greenberg Smoked Turkey is the genuine article.

CHALLENGES

The genuine article - that’s a bigger challenge than Greenberg ever expected. Companies on the Internet like to pass themselves off as “genuine Greenberg” at the lowest prices. But those aren’t Greenberg turkeys.

“My biggest challenge now is people stealing my name on the Internet,” Greenberg said. “If you Google Greenberg turkey, you don’t know what’s going to pop up. It might be me, and it might not. Someone else might claim to be selling Greenberg turkeys. But that’s not me.”

Yet the Internet is a necessity for the company; anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the orders come in via the Web.

“I know I have a great business here,” Greenberg said. “It’s frustrating to see people trying to take advantage of the name and goodwill my parents built up here.”

 

SUPPLY

An outbreak of avian flu last spring threatened the 2015 holiday season, as some farms were forced to kill their entire turkey populations. The Associated Press reports that the flu wiped out 8 million turkeys.

But Greenberg said he has no supply problems.

“I had all my turkeys here this year in July,” he said. “There were some times last spring when we were getting a little nervous, because of the bird flu situation. But we got everything ordered and delivered here.”

He’s confident his suppliers will deliver next year’s birds, too.

“We have a great relationship, and I know they’ll take care of me,” he said.

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