This Turkey Really Has Legs

Greenberg Smoked Turkey runs no ads, takes no credit cards, has no toll-free number--and may not even want you as a customer. Is this any way to run a thriving mail-order business? Yes indeedy.

To all outward appearances, a Greenberg smoked turkey doesn't seem as if it would taste very good. It shows up on your doorstep in a plain white rectangular box, smelling like something that had been dragged, not quite in the nick of time, from a tragic house fire. Open the box, and you are smacked by a more intense blast of the blaze-aftermath smell. Inside, you'll find a dark, wrinkled, shrunken bird, hardly a Norman Rockwell centerpiece.

But then you cut a little piece off and try it. It tastes not overwhelmingly smoky, but mellow and delicate, with a rich hickory flavor and a surprisingly comforting mix of spices, the components of which you can't quite nail down. By the time you're done chewing that first bite, you're already searching for the order card to send one of these aromatic delights to your friends, your parents--even the in-laws.

Over the years, Sam Greenberg, the third-generation Greenberg to run the family's increasingly famous smoked-turkey operation in Tyler, Texas, has converted his fair share of wary newcomers into loyal fans. One of his favorite stories is of a woman from Dallas who called to complain only minutes after receiving her turkey.

"She says to me, 'Mr. Greenberg, you're gonna have to send me another turkey, this one here's all burned up,'" the 45-year-old Greenberg recounts, straightening up in his chair as he grows eager to deliver the punch line. "I told her, 'Now you just try it and if you're still not happy, give me a call back and I'll gladly send you a refund.' So the lady calls an hour or so later and says, 'Mr. Greenberg, you are going to have to send me another turkey. We ate that one all up and we need another one right away.'"

It's not just little old ladies from Dallas who swear by Greenberg smoked turkeys. Movie stars, presidents, professional athletes, even a certain talk show host whom Fast Company reluctantly promised not to name, order them religiously. Standard-bearers of culinary sophistication, including Saveur and the The New York Times, have heaped on their praise.

Like its turkeys, Greenberg Smoked Turkey Inc. doesn't look very promising from the outside. Just about everything runs the same way it did 66 years ago, when Greenberg's grandfather, also named Sam, began to smoke the occasional turkey for friends and family. That means the company does no marketing or advertising, unless you count a one-column-inch ad taken out in the Tyler Morning Telegraph every year. It doesn't accept credit cards; customers pay by check, usually after they receive their turkey along with a bill. There's no toll-free number. (There is a Web site at www.gobblegobble.com, although this nod to modernity looks as if it was designed in 1962.) In other words, Greenberg's is hopelessly old-fashioned. And yet, with its legions of fiercely loyal, drooling customers, it is a profitable, growing business--one that could teach MBAs a thing or two about newfangled notions such as core competencies and trust-based marketing.

But don't mistake Greenberg's for a little cottage enterprise. It is a nationwide mail-order operation and a complex logistical exercise. By late September, the company's cavernous walk-in freezers are packed ceiling to floor with premium frozen turkeys. Greenberg's relies on seasonal workers to thaw, trim, season, smoke, package, and distribute more than 165,000 units of a highly perishable product, all the while running some pricey, high-tech sorting, packaging, and labeling equipment that prepares 4,000 turkeys an hour for UPS shipping. (Nothing speeds up the smoking of the turkeys themselves, though. That process takes four days in one of the 20 squat, brick-lined smokehouses that burn only pure hickory at an exact, low temperature.)

To top it off, more than 60% of all orders roll in during a two-week period sometime after Thanksgiving and before Christmas. What's it like moving an entire year's worth of inventory--one-third of which won't leave the plant until December 14--in less than three months? "It would make you throw up," Greenberg says.

On the other hand, Greenberg, a highly pragmatic guy who graduated with a degree in business from the University of Texas at Austin, recognizes the value of a profitable, growing business that requires only three (very intense) months of work for a year's worth of pay. (Greenberg won't reveal any numbers, but the company sells some 165,000 turkeys, average weight 10 pounds, at $3.50 a pound. That's a nearly $6 million-a-year business, growing, he says, by 5% to 7% a year.) The other nine months allow time for friends, family, travel, and a handful of side ventures.

Greenberg's way of doing things may seem quaint. He and his mother, Joyce, who helps run the company, treat it as a virtual shrine to his father, Zelick, who really built the operation into a business. He died in 1996, and his portrait hangs next to Joyce's desk near the front door.

But stripped to their essence, all these seemingly old-fashioned practices really reflect a well-thought-out mode of doing business that consists of two basic tenets: Treat your customers with the utmost respect, and stick to things you know. For instance, Joyce, a spry woman of 77 for whom Greenberg smoked turkeys have literally been a life's work, sums up the family's argument for not taking credit cards with a couple of biting questions: "Do you not trust people? Do you not think that, basically, people are good?" Requiring customers to prepay for their orders with credit cards, her son interjects, would tacitly say to them, We don't trust you. "And we won't say that to our customers," he adds.

As for sticking with things you know, Greenberg says that in the same way he would never change how he smokes turkeys, he wants to leave the business--except the shipping-- exactly the way it is and always has been (right down to the plain white boxes) because, quite simply, it works. Well. "I want my tombstone to read, 'Here lies Sam Greenberg. He didn't do anything to mess up Greenberg Turkey!' " he says.

"Why would I want to take credit cards? Why would I want to do a marketing campaign? In fact, why would I add more products to the line?" Greenberg asks. "The people I would get from doing all that, well, frankly, I don't want those people."

The people he wants are more of the customers he already has--the ones who greatly enjoy their Greenberg turkey once a year and then promptly pay the bill once it arrives. He wants their friends, family members, and business associates. What he doesn't want is a bunch of strangers responding to a slick pitch in some mass marketing campaign. "This business has enjoyed more success due to things I haven't done rather than because of things I have done," Greenberg says.

There are other things that won't change at Greenberg's. By October, the smokehouses will have begun to belch hickory smoke around the clock. The calls will have started coming in, frighteningly slow at first, then too fast to handle. Tractor-trailers will line up to get their haul of 35,000 pounds' worth of smoked meat that will be trucked to tables from New Orleans to New York.

And despite the counterintuitiveness of it all--the burnt-looking bird, the creaky business practices--by the morning of December 26, Greenberg's will fall silent with yet another successful turkey-selling season in the bag.

Ryan Underwood (runderwood@fastcompany.com) brought some smoked turkey into the office, but not enough.

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