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Ones to Watch | By Jody Shee

Jive Turkey
A honey pecan turkey.

New York City is a culinary melting pot. Chinese egg rolls, Jamaican beef patties, falafels, bagels with spreads—you name it. But Aricka Westbrooks wondered where the American comfort food was.

She couldn’t find the type of comfort food people would take time to prepare at home, dishes like potato salad, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. And turkey? That was unheard of in a New York restaurant. So in 2003, she opened her own restaurant: Jive Turkey.

The customer draw for the 1,400- square-foot restaurant isn’t a dining room where you can come in and take a load off. There are only six seats. Instead, it’s a take-home-and-reheat concept open for lunch and dinner, and the whole-fried turkeys—in 15 flavors—are the main attractions.

Westbrooks earned a master’s degree in communications and landed a job in New York doing public relations and marketing for fashion and luxury goods items before opening the concept. “I didn’t want to do it any more after seven years,” she says. “I wanted to try my own business doing something different that no one else was doing.”

So began her life with turkey. She secured a few loans, found a storefront on a historic commercial street in Brooklyn, hired a consulting chef, and was in business.

Besides whole turkeys, Jive Turkey offers plenty of menu items like turkey meatloaf, barbecue ribs, Cajun catfish, and crab cakes plus sandwiches, salads, and sides. None of the items are held hot, but instead are prepared and packaged to go.

The best-seller among the daily items is a half-pound portion of white or dark turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and a side of gravy for $7.95. The other top-seller is the turkey cheddar sandwich, which features hand-carved turkey, bacon, and cheddar cheese on sourdough bread for $8.46.

In her fried whole-turkey lineup, Westbrooks offers adventurous flavors such as Jamaican Jerk, Buffalo, and Peking. The three most popular turkey flavors are Peach Bourbon, Honey Pecan, and Cajun. The prices range from $53.50 to $75.50 for the 10- to 12-pound fowl, which Westbrooks flavors using spice rubs, marinades, and seasoned butter.

The biggest challenge of the bird business is the holiday season, especially Thanksgiving. The overwhelming holiday demand is the reason Westbrooks isn’t looking to franchise her concept. The week before Thanksgiving, customers begin lining up at the front door each day at 6 a.m. for the store opening at 9 a.m. It’s not uncommon to see a line of 50 people out the door during the holidays.

Jive Turkey

PRESIDENT: Aricka Westbrooks

HQ: Brooklyn, New York

YEAR STARTED: 2003

ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed

TOTAL UNITS: 1

FRANCHISE UNITS: 0

WEB SITE: www.thejiveturkey.com

The store sold about 3,500 turkeys last holiday season, and it took an equipment and staff upgrade to be able to accomplish that. Westbrooks began her business with one turkey fryer but increased to six to meet the demand. To keep from having to buy extra refrigerators and freezers to accommodate the holiday business, the owners of a nearby cold-storage facility allow her to store and defrost uncooked turkeys at their location during the busy winter holidays.

Staff also expands from five to 25 for the holidays. A team comes in and cooks turkeys from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. then another team arrives to cook until 9 a.m. the next morning. “One night I fell asleep here and woke up and saw people standing outside [waiting],” Westbrooks says.

This year, she expects to sell 5,000 to 7,000 turkeys between Thanksgiving and Christmas, thanks to a partnership allowing her to sell her birds through the Williams-Sonoma catalog and Web site for the first time. “That’s a result of six years of developing a system that works in order to sell turkeys in large volumes,” she says. She will ship the turkeys overnight by UPS in insulated foam coolers with a gel refrigerant inside corrugated shipping boxes.

So far, Jive Turkey’s biggest business boost comes from media attention. Besides appearing on many local network television news programs, the Food Network’s “Road Tasted with the Neelys” and the Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise” have also featured Jive Turkey.

“The beauty of cable TV is they air the program over and over again and repackage it and air it again in a new show,” she says. “That’s driven year-round business to us—to our Web site and our store front.” Westbrooks adds that she has never had to advertise her business.

In the next two years, she’d like to open another unit somewhere in New York. “While I’ve had thoughts of franchising or expanding in other ways, I come back to the fact that I have to really be able to capture that holiday business,” she says. “It’s heart-breaking to have customers come at Thanksgiving to get a turkey and you can’t accommodate them. It’s not five people who come but 500.”