‘We wanted to keep it as normal as possible’: Cacia’s Bakery keeps up turkey-roasting tradition.

Baker Joe Cacia roasts Thanksgiving turkeys for customers at Cacia's Bakery in South Philly. (Liz Tung / WHYY)

Baker Joe Cacia roasts Thanksgiving turkeys for customers at Cacia's Bakery in South Philly. (Liz Tung / WHYY)

Cacia Bakery’s Thanksgiving turkeys are famous throughout South Philly — so famous, that fourth-generation baker Joe Cacia spotted their first customer lining up at 4 in the morning.

“She sat there with her turkey for two hours on a stool,” Cacia said. “In the pouring rain.”

She was soon joined by dozens of others, who in the pre-dawn hours formed the longest (socially distanced) line Cacia says he’s ever seen.

Cacia, by the way, says customers don’t have to do that. “You don’t have to come at four or five in the morning,” he said. “We’ve never run out of room.”

Still, it’s a testament to the popularity of the bakery’s annual turkey-roasting tradition, which Cacia’s grandfather started in the 1960s.

“The basic idea of this is to save room in your oven,” Cacia said. “Most people don’t want the hassle of watching it, and they want to go do other things. So this is a good thing for them to do.”

Customers bring their turkeys pre-dressed, and for a flat fee of $26, snag a spot inside Cacia’s large-scale roasting operation.

By mid-morning, the bakery had 75 turkeys roasting inside their two massive ovens, all lined up like an army of foil-covered soldiers.

Baker Joe Cacia roasts Thanksgiving turkeys for customers at Cacia’s Bakery in South Philly. (Liz Tung / WHYY)

A straggler appeared shortly after 9 a.m., with a turkey ready to go in a foil roasting pan. Her name was Dana Stowe.

“I’m trying to help my dad,” Stowe said, Cacia handed her a numbered ticket for her turkey. “I don’t usually celebrate the holidays, but he’s home with surgery. So due to COVID and all that, we’re bringing Thanksgiving to him.”

Stowe says she heard about the turkey-roasting operation on the news, but was already a fan of Cacia’s.

“My grandma used to live in South Philly, so I used to come here all the time,” she said. “They’re the best.”

Indeed, it’s not just convenience that attracts Cacia’s devoted customers — it’s the final product.

“I think it tastes phenomenal,” Cacia said. “It’s juicy; it’s tender it. Doesn’t dry out.”

Cacia says that’s thanks to their two ovens, which they normally use to bake bread, rolls, and pizza.

“It makes a huge difference,” Cacia said, gesturing to their brick oven. “The heat radiates among the bricks, and it keeps it nice and moist. There’s a nice steam that collects inside and it keeps the turkey nice and juicy.”

Same for their other oven, which contains rotating platforms for rotisserie-style roasting.

“It’s very large, and the heat distributes very evenly,” he said. “And it’s not a dry heat in there either. We have a boiler that creates steam.”

Cacia says they use numbered tickets to keep track of the turkeys — though it can get confusing when a bunch come out at the same time.

“You have to find number 40 or number 20,” he said. “That’s a little chaotic.”

The hardest part is actually accessing the turkeys once they’ve been shoved to the back of the brick oven.

“Eventually all of these have to have their tinfoil taken off, and to do that is not easy,” Cacia said.

Baker Joe Cacia roasts Thanksgiving turkeys for customers at Cacia’s Bakery in South Philly. (Liz Tung / WHYY)

To do that, they have to maneuver the turkeys around the dozens of others using a pizza peel, which is like a big wooden spatula. The foil comes off, and then the turkeys are slid back in.

“Like, if there’s a hundred turkeys in here, that has to happen for all of them,” Cacia said. ” So that’s the most difficult part about it.”

Though it’s slightly easier this year — despite the long line this morning, they only received around 75 turkeys. Usually, they get over a hundred.

But Cacia says it was important to them to maintain the tradition.

“Some people aren’t even having Thanksgiving dinner, but we wanted to keep it as normal as possible,” he said, “and keep everybody happy, because there are people that have been doing this like for 10 years. So we wanted to make sure we could provide for that.”

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