Butterball has thrown a lifeline to home cooks since 1981, rescuing them from the brink of holiday meal disasters through its Turkey Talk-Line.
What began 40 years ago with six phone operators has evolved into a 50-plus person team that responds to poultry problems and other meal conundrums via phone (1-800-BUTTERBALL), text (1-844-877-3456), Amazon Alexa, and pretty much every social media platform, including — new this year — TikTok. The phone lines, which opened for the season on Nov. 1, will be in service through Dec. 25. Of course, there’s also the Butterball website, full of FAQs and even video tutorials.
Did you know that the self-dubbed “turkey tutors” undergo Butterball University training each October to save the rest of us from mealtime mortification on the biggest food holiday of the year? Or that the call center, based in Naperville, Illinois, went remote last year, due to the pandemic?
I gleaned that and more after chatting with talk-line veterans Nicole Johnson and Phyllis Kramer. They discussed what it takes to be a turkey professional and shared some of their most memorable crisis-aversion moments.
This year marks Johnson’s seventh season as director of the talk line, but she has been part of the team since 2001. Her inaugural year is testament to her dedication. She got married the Saturday before Thanksgiving, but postponed her honeymoon to field calls on the hotline.
“My friends and family always kid that, October, November and December, I am married to Butterball,” Johnson said.
So are the other turkey tutors. Turnover is so low that the average tenure is 16 years. “Historically, in order to get onto the talk line, it’s always been a word of mouth, referral or recommendation. We’ve never had to advertise, which is kind of neat,” Johnson said.
Like many on the team, Johnson is a dietitian by training. Yet, the experts also include culinary instructors, food scientists and chefs. All hold a bachelor’s degree; some have a master’s degree. Besides culinary acumen and communication skills (five are fluent in Spanish), these men and women are adept at hand-holding. The three core attributes that Butterball emphasizes among this cadre are patience, understanding and grace, known internally by the acronym PUG.
“People come to this job, and they just really enjoy it,” said Kramer, a retired home economics instructor now in her 19th season as a talk-line expert. “It’s like being a teacher in the best of times,” she said. “People are so gracious and thankful. They want to get this meal right. They don’t want any stress or problems. It’s nice, sometimes, to just talk it over with somebody.”
Keeping up with the times
Besides receiving hands-on instruction in the Butterball test kitchen on the 10 basic ways to cook a turkey, the talk-line pros undergo annual training to stay abreast of recipes, cooking trends, appliances and other culinary advancements.
Their advice to consumers has evolved through the years, too.
“You don’t have to wash the turkey like we used to,” Kramer said. “You just take out the neck, dry that with paper towels. You take out the giblets, dry that. Brush the turkey with oil, or Pam or butter or something, and then put it in a 325 oven.”
Recommended cooking times also have changed. “The average turkey, up to 18 pounds, cooks in just about three to three and a half hours. Forty years ago, they were cooking turkeys all day. There’s a whole different mindset of cooking turkeys,” Kramer said.
Staying relevant is the reason why Butterball now has a presence on TikTok. “We found that 83% of consumers are going to social media for recipe trends and inspiration, so we jumped on TikTok this year,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure that the talk line continues to evolve and meet consumers’ needs where they want to get their information.”
If you think you’ve got an epic-fail turkey tale, the turkey tutors most likely have you beat. They’ve heard it all.
“The thawing questions we get are sometimes really creative,” Kramer said.
Can I wrap a frozen turkey in an electric blanket to speed up the thawing? Can I put it by the radiator?
Oh, and that time a couple in California who were pre-gaming in their hot tub with drinks in hand wanted to know if they could toss the turkey in the tub with them. “We wouldn’t recommend that,” Kramer told them.
What she would recommend is that you move the turkey from freezer to fridge a week before Thanksgiving on National Thaw Your Turkey Day. (Who knew?!)
“People are worried about that, because they’re thinking it won’t be safe,” Kramer explained. “But — and here’s a good bit of information — after the turkey has completely thawed, you have three or four more days before you have to cook it.”
Even though they are highly trained, sometimes, turkey troubleshooting takes a village. “If somebody is stumped, or not sure, we just pull our headphones off and ask somebody right here. It’s very collegial,” Kramer said.
In the rare instance when a turkey can’t be saved, they feel really bad. “When that happens, we try really hard ... to give them as much advice as we can. ... It’s a tough call,” Kramer said.
There are times when turkey tutors double as therapists, like when a call came from a young woman who was hiding out in a closet. The conversation went something like this:
Caller: This is my first Thanksgiving and my mother and my family’s here. My mother thinks the turkey is done. My mother-in-law doesn’t. I don’t know what to do. What do you think?
Kramer: Well, to get you off the hook, just put me on the phone. Put me on speakerphone. And let me be the one.
Caller: No, no, no. I can do it myself.
“I don’t remember who was the right one, but it was a lose-lose, no matter what. She was just in tears,” Kramer recalled.
She also has heard tears of joy. “Somebody would call and say, ‘My mother died. We don’t know how to do the gravy.’ When you talk them through that, you can feel the joy in the kitchen. It’s wonderful,” Kramer said.
One of the most heartening exchanges Kramer had was with a man who was going to pop the question to his girlfriend at Thanksgiving dinner. “He said, ‘We’re all going to be together for Thanksgiving, so I want to put the engagement ring in the turkey. That will be a surprise, and everybody will be there together.”
“The engagement ring in the turkey? Oh. I have to figure this one out. I don’t have any training for that at Butterball University,” Kramer thought. “I talked it through with him quite a long time to figure out a different way to present this engagement. They were all together, but I don’t think the ring had to really go into the turkey for that to make it memorable.”
For more stories about the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, go to AJC.com and watch Ligaya Figueras’ interviews with Director Nicole Johnson and expert Phyllis Kramer.
Butterball Turkey Talk-Line through the years
1981 — Butterball Turkey Talk-Line debuts with six operators, and fields 11,000 calls that season.
1984 — Turkey Talk-Line tosses its paper script and tally system, and goes electronic, with computerized resource information.
1985 — In response to microwave mania, Turkey Talk-Line experts offer a turkey microwave recipe.
1995 — Turkey Talk-Line provides instant answers 24/7, with Butterball.com.
2006 — Butterball provides turkey information on-demand and on-the-go, through new social media pages, such as Facebook, Twitter and mobile offerings.
2013 — Butterball introduces the first men on the talk-line staff.
2016 — Butterball adds texting as a way to request assistance.
2018 — Butterball adds the Butterball Alexa skill, to hear from a talk-line expert.
2020 — Butterball Turkey Talk-Line experts operate remotely for the first time.
2021 — Butterball launches the Turkey Talk-Line on TikTok.
Ligaya Figueras is the AJC's senior editor for Food, Dining and Living. Prior to joining the AJC in 2015, she was the executive editor for St. Louis-based culinary magazine Sauce. She has worked in the publishing industry since 1999 and holds degrees from St. Louis University and the University of Michigan.