Talking Turkey

A Thanksgiving dispatch from the front lines of the Butterball hot line.

By Claire Suddath

I’m wearing a deliciously crispy skin. What are you wearing?


On Thanksgiving morning, real estate agent Marty Van Ness woke up at 4 a.m. By 6 a.m. she was at the Butterball company test kitchen and offices in Naperville, Ill., where for the next eight hours she sat at a desk in a large, brightly lit room and, with the help of 59 other trained Butterball cooks, answered as many of the 12,000 calls to Butterball’s toll-free hot line as she could. Van Ness flipped through a four-inch-thick binder full of turkey tips and tricks and spoke in a cheerful, Midwestern voice to frantic would-be chefs wondering how to defrost, deep-fry, cook, baste, brine, or carve their holiday birds.

“Last year a man called me on Thanksgiving Day and said, ‘OK, I’ve got my frozen turkey ready to thaw and I have one question: What number should I set the dial to on my electric blanket?’ ” Says Van Ness, “I haven’t been stumped by a question in years, but that one — that one we had to get creative.”

Ever since its founding in 1940, Butterball has been at the top of the turkey game. Today it sells more than 1.3 billion pounds of turkey meat annually. If you cooked a turkey this holiday season, there’s a one in five chance the bird you bought was a Butterball. These days, the company isn’t focused so much on gaining new customers as cultivating loyalty among those it has.

So in 1981, Butterball experimented with the relatively new concept of a 1-800 number. It set up a toll-free hot line and staffed it with a handful of home economists. The company put the number on the little instruction packet that comes with each bird. “Toll-free numbers were just becoming popular, and they had no idea how many people would call,” says Linda Compton, Butterball’s director of consumer affairs. More than 11,000 customers did that first year, and the company has continued the practice ever since. Others have followed suit: Today you can ask Perdue or Foster Farms for help — Crisco even has a year-round pie hot line.

This year, Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line is open from early November through Christmas Eve and is expected to serve more than 1 million people. Although most cooks still call, Butterball also answers e-mail and, beginning this year, questions on Facebook and Twitter. (This may prove to be a mixed blessing: On Butterball’s Facebook page there are about as many queries about cooking as there are screeds against eating meat and accusations of mistreatment of animals.)

Van Ness has been answering the Turkey Talk-Line since 1984, which means she has a wealth of both recipe tips (you can cook a frozen turkey without thawing it; it just takes two to three hours longer) and sociological insights, such as her observation that more men are calling than ever before.

She especially likes dealing with college kids cooking their first Thanksgiving dinners. “They’ll call me from the grocery store aisle and say, ‘OK, we have a turkey. What else do we need?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, do you have a pan?’ ” A few years ago, Butterball made all its Turkey Talk-Line experts take a deep-frying course after customers kept accidentally setting their turkeys — and themselves — on fire.

Thanksgiving is understandably the busiest time for the Turkey Talk-Line, but Van Ness says more and more people are hosting their gatherings at unusual times of the month. “Family members live all over the country and almost everybody works, so they can’t always get together on the right day,” she says. Van Ness herself always eats her turkey on the correct day. After her eight-hour shift at Butterball ends, she drives home and takes a short nap before sitting down to a dinner her husband has prepared. “He has my direct number at work to call if he has any questions,” she says, “but after so many years, he’s gotten pretty good. These days, the only questions he asks are things like, ‘Where are the oven mitts?’ ”


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