Last Christmas Eve, one of the staff at Kelly Turkeys took a call from a regular customer. ‘Did they have an extra turkey spare? And if so, could he buy it?’
‘Well yes,’ the office manager answered. ‘But why do you need another one? And why so late?’
The man confessed that when the smart black box had been delivered to his door two days before, he hadn’t checked the contents, and had absentmindedly put it under the tree. It was only when the smell got bad he twigged.
When I visit Kelly Turkeys at the end of November, it is the start of the crucial five-week period when the year’s work comes to fruition, but well before the mania of late December when the phones ring all day and people realise they need a replacement turkey.
Start of the season
At this time of year on the farm and processing site in Danbury, Essex, 4,000 turkeys are being slaughtered a day. They wait in the lairage, lined thickly with straw, moving slowly around, displaying their plumes of shiny black feathers.
They are slow-growing Bronze turkeys, reared free-range for 26 weeks. Some have access to housing; others live wild in local woodland. “On nights when it’s pitch black they sleep spread out individually on the ground,” says managing director Paul Kelly, who is showing me around. “When it’s bright moonlight, they all huddle together and sleep in a group. I think it’s because they can see predators.”
Rearing turkeys like this, is of course, niche. They live eight weeks longer than the dominant white turkey, grown indoors for the major suppliers to the supermarket turkey market – Faccenda, Bernard Matthews and Gressingham.
By Christmas, a total of 42,000 will be dry plucked, hung for a fortnight, and boxed, ready for delivery to butchers, or sold direct to customers who either collect from the farm or get the bird FedEx’d to their door.
Building the Bronze brand
Bronze turkeys are a traditional breed, rich in flavour. But they fell out of favour in the ‘70s when supermarket buyers demanded white birds because they thought shoppers didn’t want black feather stubs ruining the effect of the white meat. Paul’s father Derek Kelly, 88, who founded the firm in 1971, brought the breed back from the brink.
Initially, says Paul, the firm was a laughing stock. Nobody wanted the Bronze birds. But supermarkets were becoming so powerful in the early ‘80s, they needed a point of difference in order to survive. Competing on price was impossible.
It was a rocky period, and Paul, who joined the business in 1984 as a 21-year old, describes it as a time of crisis. “We were pretty much bust,” he says. As a young man, he travelled around London, attempting to sell Bronze turkeys to butchers. He had lots of doors closed in his face.
But persistence turned into a few orders, and the product started to speak for itself. Then in 1989, Delia Smith included Bronze turkeys in her best-selling Christmas cookery book. Paul describes this as a hugely important moment for the business. “We still see her a lot at the football at Norwich,” he says. “We’re good friends.”
During the mid ‘90s was another period of uncertainty, when intensive farming techniques were advancing all the time and the price gap was growing every year. Currently, a 5kg turkey from Kelly costs around £76, while the same weight frozen supermarket bird is around £20. Paul fretted for several years before concluding price was virtually irrelevant. “Suddenly it occurred to me price wasn’t an issue. They weren’t our competitors.”
The business has since whole-heartedly embraced opportunities for TV and celebrity endorsements and hosted Jamie Oliver several years back for his Channel 4 series, as well as agreeing to be featured on Kill It, Cook It, Eat It, a mid-noughties BBC series filmed in slaughterhouses aimed at educating a squeamish, urban, ignorant British public about the fact that meat actually comes from animals.
Paul says some Italian friends were baffled by the premise of Kill It, Cook It, Eat It. “They just didn’t get it.” To them, the swift dispatch of an animal was so routine, they couldn’t understand the point of an entire TV series based around such a mundane subject. But it all helped build the brand and spread the message about the quality of the product.
Balancing the business
The Christmas turkey market is fairly static in terms of size. Around ten million turkeys are bought in the UK each year, split roughly equally between fresh and frozen. But the long-term trend is towards premium products, which is obviously good news for Kelly’s.
But there are big challenges too. Just over two years ago, a fire destroyed one of the main buildings on the site. At the time it was housing a small number of chicks. It was early summer, June, and a Sunday, so there were fewer staff than usual.
An infrared lamp was knocked at some point on to straw. Paul was gardening; his home is on the site too. He first smelled smoke, and within minutes the building was alight and before the fire crews could save it, everything was destroyed.
Calling in favours from everyone he knew, and with a prompt pay out from NFU Mutual, they had rebuilt within 19 weeks and Christmas was saved, but it was a shock, and had it come any later in the year, the consequences would have been much worse.
At Poultry Business’s round table event in September, Derek Kelly said it was becoming so hard to secure a seasonal workforce, he was worried whether the business would continue to be viable.
During seasonal peaks, the business employs around 100 mainly Polish workers to process the birds. In common with many other agricultural businesses, attempts to attract local workers have been repeatedly unsuccessful.
Paul shows me around a permanent encampment of mobile homes on site he refers to as the Polish village. “We got the workers in the end,” says Paul. “Paying more is the easy bit. But after the referendum, they were worried about whether they were welcome here and they were worried about going into pubs in Chelmsford. There’s seasonal work in Germany, in Spain, so they have plenty of other options.”
Paul is hopeful that once the political climate is calmer and there is clarity over what Brexit means, relative normality will be restored and the Poles will be familiar faces for many more years.
The full Brazilian
The processing site is currently working at full whack. As we walk through the processing area the carcases move past on rails, suspended by their feet, at various stages of plucking, the early ones still thickly covered in black plumage, the later ones almost bald.
Workers line the floor, each concentrating on pulling the feathers from a different area of the bird. I notice the black feathers appear to be covered in a sticky white liquid. ‘What’s that stuff?’ I ask. ‘Wax,’ says Kelly. ‘They get the full Brazilian’.
Kelly explains how he racked his brains for ways to make plucking more efficient without resorting to the scalding tank, and came up with the idea of dipping the carcase in hot wax. The feathers come off in a hugely satisfying swift tug that can remove great strips at a time, leaving the skin underneath unaffected. It’s now been adopted by several other processors that specialise in dry plucked poultry, he says.
As well as the Christmas turkey business, Kelly’s has a thriving breeding and hatchery business called Farmgate Hatcheries, that occupies the other half of the year. Turkey chicks are supplied to 1,300 farmers, and Kelly’s also rears some birds on its own farms, which it then sells to other businesses such as Gressingham to finish, slaughter and sell from its own sites.
The breeding business gives Kelly’s a balance, and means it doesn’t rely solely on the Christmas market. However, it does mean Paul isn’t keen on trying to grow the Christmas turkey business. If he did that, it would mean eating into other farmers’ share, and that would have a knock-on effect on who then wouldn’t buy their chicks from Kelly’s.
Instead, his growth plan involves America. Frozen turkeys can be bought in America for as little as $1 per lb. Offering consumers something special is an exciting opportunity, says Paul, and the Thanksgiving and Christmas markets offer huge opportunities because there are so few premium products currently available.
The business has bought a farm in Virginia, two hours’ drive from Washington DC, and over the past few years Paul has spent growing amounts of time developing the farm, then hopping in the car to the capital city for meetings with USDA officials.
Just this autumn, he got clearance to be able to sell the turkeys dry plucked, after innumerable meetings with sceptical officials. “They are obsessed with washing everything over there,” says Paul. “They were hugely worried about dry plucking. They just didn’t get it. Which is funny in a way because dry plucked birds were originally known as New York dressed birds, because that’s how they used to do it there.”
After convincing them of the safety of dry plucking – campylobacter numbers are far lower, he says – Kelly got his licence, and has secured orders for 1,900 birds from US butcher’s shops for the festive season.
The challenge of starting from scratch in a new market is clearly something Paul relishes. And if he can replicate the success of the Bronze bird in other markets, the future for premium turkeys looks pretty bright.