Trucks of Thanksgiving
As my family has gathered at various houses for Thanksgiving throughout the years, the homemade dishes have changed, but one thing has always stayed the same: at least a couple sides always came from Wade’s Restaurant. A staple of Spartanburg, S.C., for more than 60 years, Wade’s has been serving the local community Thanksgiving dinner for as long as anyone involved in the restaurant can remember. The restaurant is still a family-owned business, currently owned by Hamp Lindsey and Carole Miller, founder Wade Lindsey’s children. We spoke to Wade Lindsey III, grandson of Wade Lindsey and current manager, about how Wade’s handles being open for the most food-centric holiday of the year.
Bulk Holiday Food Prep with Wade Lindsey III
KaTom: How many years has Wade’s been open on Thanksgiving? Was it a hard decision to decide to be open for the holiday?
Wade Lindsey: Wade’s has been open on Thanksgiving for as long as [I], Hamp, or Carole can remember. What has been a challenge is to find the best ways to handle the huge demand for home-cooked meals around the holidays. Years ago, guests used to bring us their own bone-in turkeys and we would cook them for them. This gained popularity faster than our cooks and ovens could handle. Therefore, we started purchasing our own bone-in birds so that we could control the cooking schedule and create a more efficient system. This worked for several years until, in the early 2010s, the demand finally once again overcame us, this time in terms of the amount of space turkeys took up in ovens and how much oven space we had.
So we began a quest to find another product, which luckily ended up being the exact same turkey we had been purchasing for years from Butterball; however, it came to us already de-boned. This allowed us to fit about 50 percent more turkey in total into our ovens.
We have been using this all-white-meat, boneless turkey breast lobe since then and hope it will continue to allow us to deliver families their holiday turkey for years to come. Fun fact: as of now, over the holidays we serve 13,000 pounds of turkey.
K: How have your customers responded to the option of eating out for the holiday? Are sales lower or higher than a standard day?
W: About 5 years ago, Thanksgiving Day had a very reliable pattern. Before we even began serving regular guests, we would prepare several pre-ordered 200-plus plate orders for businesses around the community that were also open on Thanksgiving. We boxed these up and organized them throughout our dining room for the businesses to pick up. We would then reset and prepare for a half day from 10:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. (our typical Sunday hours, except [not] on a Sunday). Thanksgiving was historically extremely busy until about 1 p.m., at which point it would drop off suddenly and we would begin sending staff home. Once we closed at 3 p.m., we would gather all the remaining staff in our galley and have a cheer session for surviving the Holiday. We give out “I Survived Thanksgiving at Wade’s” t-shirts, several prizes, and then allow our staff to take any leftover food from the day home with them to enjoy with their families.
In the past three years, for a reason we haven’t found yet, our business no longer dies off at 1 p.m. and we stay busy until we close the doors. Nowadays, we serve about 750 guests per hour on Thanksgiving. This is now our busiest day, other than Mothers’ Day.
K: How do employees feel about working on the holiday?
W: When we hire our employees, we are very clear and honest about the expectations of holiday hours at our restaurant for fear of catching someone off guard. However, we have such an amazing staff that enjoys the challenges of a busy restaurant that we now create a sign-up sheet for Thanksgiving so we can make sure the employees that want to work on Thanksgiving get to. Throughout the holiday time, to create incentive for the amount of staff we need for order-taking and production, we have an hourly holiday bonus that we tie to an increase in bulk and frozen food sales throughout the month of November [compared to] the past year. We also close every year for the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving so that our staff can relax and enjoy time with their families.
K: I know Wade’s also makes meats, sides, and desserts available for purchase for customers to take home for several days before Thanksgiving. How do you plan and execute the amount of food has to be made for that?
Similar to our turkey dilemma, preparing for supplying people food to take home to their families throughout the holidays has morphed over the years. It began as simply as people would walk in throughout the holiday season and order 3 quarts, 5 quarts, and so on, and we would scoop it into quart containers and sell them. People then realized they wanted to up their presentation values and began asking us to cook their items in aluminum pans that they could take home with them and serve. We had to begin taking pre-orders at this point as our holiday bulk business began to grow.
Eventually, we once again reached a point where we realized we couldn’t cook the amount of food that people demanded. This ignited the creation of our Cook-at-Home casseroles, where we do all the time-consuming prep work and then blast freeze our products so that guests can simply take home the items they need, and then thaw them and cook them in their own pans as they need them. The popularity of these has continued to grow, so much that we now begin our holiday production in early September for five days a week (excluding Saturdays and Sundays) to begin preparing the 29,000 individual quarts of items that will be sold throughout the holidays. Our food suppliers allow us to use three of their 16-wheeler trucks from September to January to create temporary freezers that we run on diesel for the last quarter of the year to store everything we produce. This production all culminates in a “Holiday Frozen Food Line” on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, where we shut down our Express side of the restaurant and turn it into a grocery store assembly line where our staff walks families down the line of products and aids them in filling their orders and transporting it out to their vehicles.
K: How many blast chillers does the restaurant have, to be able to keep up with that incredible rate of production? Do some products do better than others in the blast freezing process?
We have two blast chillers at our restaurant. They are of course very expensive, but very, very useful. We use them nightly to chill our leftovers and it is amazing how well they help preserve product quality. During the holidays they will freeze about 200 quarts each in 2 hours. We found that all products except our green beans can be blast chilled. Our green beans don’t freeze well in general so we produce them last and refrigerate them.
K: Black Friday sales have been starting earlier and earlier in the past few years, with some even starting Thursday evening. Have you noticed this affecting your sales?
W: Since we are closed Black Friday and close early on Thanksgiving, it has never seemed to really factor into our plans. However, now that you mention it, maybe this is the trend that is causing our Thanksgiving Day business to continue as long as it does for the past few years.