The typical supermarket turkey is the Barbie doll of birds: Bred for lots of breast meat, it's so top-heavy that it can't mate naturally or walk easily. The Broad-Breasted White, as the hybrid is known, is also an unwitting conqueror. Over the last 50 years, it has dominated the turkey market, nearly eliminating the breeds served for Thanksgiving in our great-grandparents' day.
In 2001, Patrick Martins, then head of Slow Food USA, set out to save the old birds. Slow Food, a movement begun to counter the McDonald's way of eating, uses education to promote rare and traditional foods. He thought he could do more for the turkeys by marketing them. "These amazing, rare birds have all this great history," he says. "No one took the added step of trying to actually sell them."
So Martins started Heritage Foods USA with fellow Slow Foodie Todd Wickstrom. In 2002, it sold just 800 heritage turkeys—breeds like American Bronze, Bourbon Red, and Narragansett. This Thanksgiving, tens of thousands of Americans will eat Heritage Foods turkeys. The company's revenue is growing more than 40% a year—signs of consumers' growing appetite for food that isn't industrially produced.
A 1997 census by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) found just 1,335 breeding heritage turkeys in the United States. Few farmers raised them because few people bought them. Heritage turkeys typically cost at least $4 per pound—at 26 pounds, Heritage Foods' biggest bird sells for $209, shipping included; grocers can sell a factory-farm Butterball at a quarter of that price. So Martins and Wickstrom decided to target foodies. With Big Turkey selling 46 million birds at Thanksgiving, even a sliver of the market would be great business, especially for small turkey farms, which, Martins says, "have had a hard time finding support."
While Wickstrom kept the books, Martins, who has a master's degree in performance studies, became the heritage turkey's chief publicist. He sent turkeys to the press for taste tests. (Reviewers typically say they're richer, juicier, and have more dark meat than industrial birds.) He helped Frank Reese, one of his suppliers, install a Webcam on his Kansas farm so customers could see their birds pre-slaughter. He worked his Slow Food connections to get influential chefs such as Mario Batali and Alice Waters on his client list.
Martins's push coincided with the rising culinary cachet of the word "heritage." Today there are heritage meats, heritage cereals, heritage veggies, even heritage cherry pies. "We don't have very much culinary heritage in America," says Waters, chef-owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and a Heritage Foods board member. "We're drawn to the idea that there was a time when we could eat really well."
Unfortunately, buying heritage doesn't guarantee good eating—nobody regulates how the word can be used. The ALBC stipulates that to be called heritage, turkeys must mate naturally, live outdoors, and grow for 28 weeks, 10 more than industrial birds. But it doesn't certify them, and no guidelines exist for other heritage products, such as pork and beef, which Heritage Foods also sells. Sarah Obraitis, the firm's head of business development, fears "the meaning of 'heritage' will be diluted."
Rules and definitions matter less to Martins than numbers. "Whether a farmers' market, a store, or a group is helping can be measured in economic terms," he says. In 2003, 17 farmers bred heritage birds. Now there are 81. Heritage Foods will ship 15,000 turkeys this month, giving thanks for every one.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.