The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line Is Ready for the Future

The most wholesome of help hotlines has embraced the digital age.

Employees use laptops, phones, and headsets at the Butterball call center.
Courtesy of Butterball

They say journalism is dying in the digital age. And paper maps. And human interaction. But the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line? The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is thriving.

For the uninitiated, the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is pretty much what it sounds like. During November and December, you can call a special hotline to ask questions about your turkey. Everything from “What size should I get to feed all my relatives?” to “How do you stuff a turducken?” is fair game. The talk-line has been around since 1981, it’s staffed by 50 turkey experts, and it answers 10,000 turkey questions every Thanksgiving Day.

What makes a turkey expert, you ask? Their esteemed ranks include dieticians, home-ec teachers, and food stylists who take two months each year to counsel amateur bird cookers. They’re all recruited by word of mouth and referrals, and on average, they come back for 16 years. All experts get the same training, but if your call gets answered by the food stylist and your question is more befitting of the dietician, no worries—they'll just lean over and ask.

In the early days, all of those questions came as phone calls. As Turkey Talk-Line expert Nicole Johnson put it, “Back then, it was just seven home economists, all women at the time, manning all their information.” The hottest technology at the hotline was “an old-school Rolodex.” But in 2006, Butterball began allowing panicked preparers of turkeys to send their inquiries via email. By 2012, they could chat with turkey experts using a tool on the company’s website. And then in 2016 came the mother of all turkey-advising innovation: a texting help line.

No longer do customers have to wrangle the chat feature on Butterball's website while standing in the frozen section with a bird in each hand. Now, they can text photos and videos of their Thanksgiving successes and debacles. Butterball experts can send them links to recipes and video tutorials in response. When Johnson is manning the text line—staff usually divide their eight-hour shifts between speaking and digital communication—she’ll often add an emoji for a touch of cute. Butterball even started a petition to get Unicode to add a Thanksgiving turkey emoji. (The existing icon of a live, unplucked, uncooked bird isn't good enough for Butterball.)

Interestingly enough, email still trumped the text line last year: In November and December 2016, the Butterball experts received 15,280 questions by email, about 8,000 by text, and just under 4,000 by chat. The real kicker, though, is that 92,635 people called Butterball last year. Ninety-two thousand people. On the phone. With their voices.

Why, I asked Johnson, would anyone bother calling just to find out how to cook a turkey? That’s why we have Google!

Johnson is convinced that it’s all about the personal connection. “There’s something to be said about talking to someone over the phone,” she told me. “You can hear the panic in their voice. And I think they hear our reassuring voices over the phone, and it calms them down. Particularly if they’ve been waiting for a long time to talk to us.”

(It hadn’t occurred to me that one could be placed on hold on a turkey hotline, but with 2,388 calls last Thanksgiving Day and only 50 experts, I guess it makes sense.)

As a card-carrying iGen-er, I couldn't understand why people would call the hotline when they could email or text—and not get put on hold or have to actually speak to anyone. When Johnson told me that she’s noticed more people over the years asking how to cook turkey for just one or two guests, I thought, Ah, yes, people are calling because they’re lonely. Normal, well-adjusted people don’t actually want to talk about turkey that much. I shed a silent tear for the death of human interaction at the hands of the digital age.

But then, it happened. Twelve minutes into our phone call, I found myself telling Johnson how the only reason I found out about the Turkey Talk-Line at all was because a question about it had come up at my Monday-night trivia game. That’s odd, I thought. Why did I need to share that?

Then, 15 minutes later, I was telling Johnson all about how my mom cooks our turkey (inside a buttered brown grocery-store paper bag, for the curious). And about how many of my cousins were coming. And about how excited I was to go home.

I started to understand why Johnson told me, “We have people who just want to talk to us every single year.” Most of the turkey experts are veterans; the average tenure is 16 years. I could easily see them forming relationships with their callers, turning the warm-and-fuzzies up to 11 over the course of each call. Whatever the secret to phone marketing is, Butterball has it down pat.

“I think there’s something to be said about hearing that voice over the phone,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that’s ever going to lose its popularity. So I think we’re going to be okay.”