Whole Foods prepares Thanksgiving dinner for the masses

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For all those who will be making a big Thanksgiving dinner, Martine Mancini has this advice:

"Enjoy the madness."

She knows of what she speaks.

Ms. Mancini, 32, of West Homestead, has been a chef at the Whole Foods Market in East Liberty for the past 6 1/2 years. Each year, she is part of a team that prepares the traditional Thanksgiving dinner -- complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy -- not just once, but several dozen times over.

This year, that meant preparing 175 turkeys, 1,000 pounds of mashed potatoes, 1,200 pounds of traditional sage stuffing and 200 gallons of turkey gravy, as well as many other types of sides, stuffings, soups and desserts.

"It's a big undertaking," said Jim Shones, 39, of Green Tree, the Whole Foods chef in charge of it all.

Although the Thanksgiving Day meal, and the preparation that goes into preparing an entree and sides to feed a few or several, is a tradition for many families, it's also a meal that can be a lot of work and take up a lot of time.

That's why, for the past decade, the Whole Foods in East Liberty has been offering customers a complete traditional Thanksgiving dinner or oven-ready components of a dinner, such as just the turkey or just the stuffing, as a way to make the holiday a little easier.

Whole Foods sells a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, that serves 6 to 8 people a ready to cook turkey, with sage stuffing, mashed potatoes, organic cranberry orange relish, turkey gravy and a choice of vegetables or homestyle casseroles, for $119.99. A larger version of the meal, serving 12 to 16 people, costs $189.99.

The store also sells an organic Thanksgiving dinner ($129.99), a turkey dinner for two ($45.99), a vegan dinner ($39.99), oven ready turkey ($59.99 for a small) and sides serving four people ranging from mashed potatoes ($10.99) to roasted brussels sprouts ($8.99) to traditional sage stuffing ($9.99). Desserts include pumpkin pie ($9.99) and pumpkin cheesecake ($18.99).

A meal where the preparation consists solely of putting prepared food in the oven makes life a lot easier for people over Thanksgiving, Mr. Shones said.

"Society is pretty hectic on its own right now," Mr. Shones said. "Anything the customer can get really helps."

It's not just Whole Foods that is offering its customers prepared Thanksgiving meals. Giant Eagle and Habitat restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel Downtown, to name a few, have similar offers.

At Whole Foods, giving customers a hand in putting together their Thanksgiving meals means a busy few months -- and a hectic last week -- for Mr. Shones' staff. If the typical Thanksgiving preparation for an American family is madness, this is madness, multiplied.

It's also fun, though, said Ms. Mancini.

"It's a good time," she said. "I like this time."

Mr. Shones' team of 58 people starts thinking about the Thanksgiving menu in July, when most people are focused more on barbecue than on turkey.

They fine tune the logistics, then begin taking orders online and at the store in early November. Crunch time came this week, especially overnight from Monday to Tuesday, when the staff did the turkey shift, working through the night to prepare 175 turkeys that will be able to go directly from their kitchen to the customer's kitchen and onto their dining room table.

Customers began visiting the store on Monday to pick up their Thanksgiving meals, collecting their orders from tables placed outside the entrance of the store and next to four climate-controlled trucks that were piled high with prepared turkeys, green beans, pies and other Thanksgiving dishes.

As customers came and went with their meals, Chris Goodman, 27, of Squirrel Hill, a supervisor for prepared foods at the store, was outside next to one of the trucks, where he continued slicing brussels sprouts and placing them in a carton, to be prepared later inside the store. Though the trucks were piled high with food, on Tuesday, there was still more work to be done.

"If we prepare it, they will come," he said.

Fresh off her overnight turkey shift, Ms. Mancini was also standing outside behind the pick-up table for Thanksgiving meals. She had followed the meal as it progressed from ingredients, down the assembly line, to a finished product, and on Tuesday morning she was handing the fruits of her labor to her customers.

That aspect of her job -- being part of something from start to finish --is "really fulfilling," she said.

"You couldn't ask for anything more at a job."

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