MORGAN PARK — For hundreds of Southwest Side hosts every year, a Ho-Ka Turkey is the sure way to impress Thanksgiving guests.
County Fair Foods, 10800 S. Western Ave., has been selling the fresh turkeys for last 26 years. The birds are raised on the Kauffman Turkey Farm in Waterman, Ill., said Tom Baffes, owner of the store.
He stumbled upon the farm some 26 years ago while spending Thanksgiving with his wife's family in Aurora. Baffe's father-in-law took him on a trip to the nearby farm after the meal, and County Fair began offering the fresh birds to its customers on the Southwest Side the next year.
"It's been a really nice thing for County Fair because there is not a store around here that sells Ho-Ka Turkeys," Baffes said.
The store accepts orders for Ho-Ka Turkeys through Nov. 23. Baffes expects to buy about 700 fresh birds this year.
"It just keeps growing every year," he said.
Ho-Ka Turkey costs $2.79 per pound — a steep price compared to the roughly $1 per pound for most frozen turkeys. But customers seem willing to pay the premium price for the fresh turkey, which often serves as a holiday conversation starter, Baffes said.
Baffes added that many of the chefs have told him that cooking a fresh turkey is easier than working with a frozen bird. Indeed, thawing a turkey can take days — cooks without the necessary foresight often resort to soaking a frozen bird in the bathtub or a cooler to speed up the process.
But the benefits to buying these Ho-Ka turkey goes beyond the temperature: These turkeys are raised in Illinois, have access to outdoor pens and are nurtured under the watchful eye of Robert Kauffman.
Robert's father, Howard Kauffman, raised his first flock of turkeys in 1933. The birds were named after the founder — hence Ho-Ka Turkey.
The turkeys arrive on the farm not long after they hatch. The day-old birds are brought in from Minnesota, which is where most of the turkeys in the United States are born and raised, Kauffman said.
It takes about 18 weeks for the turkeys to reach full maturity. Selective breeding has sped up the growth process as well as changed other characteristics of the holiday birds. For example, all of the turkeys on Kauffman's farm are white in color. They are also bred to have large breasts, which makes natural mating impossible.
"People tend to think the turkeys are a lot older than they really are. They grow at an amazing rate," Kauffman said.
While the farmer meticulously cares for his turkeys, you won't find designations such as "hormone-free," "organic" or "range grown" on the label of his unfrozen birds.
"I don't want to make claims that don't mean anything," he said.
For example, Kauffman said nobody uses hormones when raising poultry. It's illegal and unnecessary. Thus, putting a "hormone-free" label on turkeys would only confuse customers. He avoids other such designations for similar reasons.
Kauffman raises 70,000 turkeys each year. About half of the birds are butchered at Kauffman's processing facility for Thanksgiving. Others are killed at Christmas. Any remaining birds are processed and frozen in January, he said.
In addition to County Fair, a select group of Chicago-area grocery stores also sell Ho-Ka turkeys. The list of vendors include Gene's Sausage Shop and Delicatessen in Lincoln Square, Joe and Frank's Sausage Co. in Garfield Ridge and all of the Treasure Island Foods stores.