On the Monday before Thanksgiving, 9,000 Willie Bird turkeys from Sonoma County will get on planes for flights around the country, arriving in homes from Seattle to Baltimore in time to be stuffed and roasted for the holiday meal on Nov. 24.
It’s a major logistical undertaking that involves United Parcel Service, major airlines and airports in San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angles, plus eight truck and trailer big rigs. Coordinating all this frenzied activity at the Willie Bird control center in west Santa Rosa, is Greg “Beagle” Brodsky, a transplanted Aussie, who uses his computer, cell phone and a whirling fax machines to make sure that the Sonoma County turkeys get to where they need to be for Thanksgiving. Brodsky admits he breathes a big sigh of relief once the turkeys get on the planes for their Thanksgiving trip.
“It’s an unbelievable undertaking. The logistics to get the turkeys to customers around the country is just monumental. It’s amazing that the birds are shipped on Monday and arrive at most destinations on Tuesday,” said Brodsky, the general manager at Willie Bird Turkeys for the last 35 years.
Willie Bird Turkeys is owned and operated by Willie Benedetti, his brother, Riley Benedetti, and their cousin, Rocky Koch. The Benedetti family has been raising turkeys in Sonoma County since 1948
“I didn’t know what a turkey was until I started at Willie Bird,” said Brodsky, who came to the US to play rugby. He worked on Christo’s Running for 10 months before joining the Benedettis at Willie Bird. He has been part of the family-owned company’s success by developing new markets and poultry products.
Fourteen years ago, Williams-Sonoma, the upscale food and culinary supply store, took notice of Willie Bird and began selling the free-range Sonoma County grown turkeys through its mail and online catalogue. This year Williams-Sonoma customers have ordered 9,000 Willie Bird turkeys, nearly one third of the 30,000 turkeys that Willie Benedetti and his partners will slaughter for Thanksgiving this month. The turkeys are transported from Sonoma County to a USDA inspected poultry plant in Turlock where they are slaughtered. The birds are stored in a Los Banos cooler until shipped out Thanksgiving week.
The dressed birds, packed in cooling chests and packed with ice, will go to every state in the continental United States, said Brodsky, himself amazed at the coordination of land and air travel that in a few days delivers turkeys everywhere – from apartments in Manhattan to cabins in Wyoming. This year Williams-Sonoma is charging from $85 to $175, depending on the weight, for the Willie Bird turkeys.
It’s part of the success and growth of the trademarked Willie Bird Turkeys, a family owned business that also includes the Willie Bird Restaurant in Santa Rosa and a line of smoked duck and chicken products. Willie Bird’s smoked duck is so good it has been served to the Queen of England.
“We use nothing but the highest quality poultry. Our commitment to quality control allows us to produce a meat product that is smooth and mild-flavored,” said Brodsky. “It’s a delight even to the most discriminate palate, like the Queen of England.’
The company has grown and prospered and remains one of Sonoma County’s iconic, family owned businesses. The Benedetti family has been raising turkeys in Sonoma County for 63 years but it was in 1963 that the trademarked Willie Bird name was born. That’s the year that Willie Benedetti, then a freshman at Sonoma Valley High School, raised 500 turkeys as a Future Farmers of America project, hatching a multi-million dollar annual business and becoming one of Sonoma County’s best known family farm operations. illie Bird has become the Cadillac of turkeys, commanding a premium price because it’s Sonoma County-grown, free range and fed a diet of organic grains.
“Heck, we’ve just kept raising our turkeys outside the way everyone did in the old days. We used to call them ranch-raised. Now they call them free range,” said Benedetti, a fourth-generation Sonoma County rancher.
The name Willie Bird was coined by a plain-talking hairdresser named Beverly in Petaluma. It was on Thanksgiving eve in 1963 that farm boy Willie Benedetti walked through John King’s Beauty Salon in Petaluma to deliver Beverly the fresh-dressed turkey she had ordered. She crowed “Here comes the Willie bird.”
Beverly’s bird was one of the 500 turkeys the Benedetti brothers, with Willie as ringleader, had hatched from eggs and then raised and slaughtered as the main event for Thanksgiving dinner. The budding entrepreneurs were banking on turkeys to make extra money on their family ranch on Stage Gulch Road in Petaluma. None ever dreamed it would become a lifetime career that would one day generate millions in annual sales.
The hairdresser’s Willie Bird declaration became part of Sonoma County’s agricultural history and the trademarked name of the Benedetti family’s business.
The Benedetti family still raise turkeys on the ranch in Petaluma but the but the main ranch, where about 50,000 broad-breasted white turkeys roam oak-covered hills, is on Calistoga Road in east Santa Rosa.
The family business grew from 500 Willie Birds in 1963 to the more than 30,000 turkeys that will be plucked and stuffed for Thanksgiving dinner this year. Another 18,000 Willie Birds are being fattened on the Benedetti family’s Sonoma County turkey ranches for the Christmas trade.
Willie Bird has been able to buck the trend toward mass-produced turkeys as the poultry industry consolidates, today dominated by a few huge companies.
“Quality and service are the reasons for Willie Bird’s success. Our turkeys are moist, juicy and extremely flavorful. The butchers like dealing with us because we come through with a good bird year after year,” Benedetti said.
“We’ve carved a niche for Willie Bird. We aren’t like anybody else,” he said.
One of the problems with free range turkeys is the loss by predators, said Brodsky Each year, the Benedettis lose about 500 turkeys to coyotes, mountain lions and a family of eagles that nest in the hills above their Santa Rosa ranch.
Still it’s worth the losses to produce a high-end turkey valued by Thanksgiving diners and the retailers who want to provide their customers a quality bird.
“Willie Bird is an excellent turkey and different than others on the market. Besides, it’s produced locally and we like supporting Sonoma County agriculture,” said Teejay Lowe, chief executive officer of his family’s G&G Market in Santa Rosa.