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November 25th, 2021:

Forty years of the Butterball Turkey hotline

All of your vexing turkey questions answered.

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.”

Gotta say, after reading the story and watching the embedded video, and speaking as a former helpdesk tech, being a Butterball Turkey hotline specialist sounds like a fun gig. I’m completely unqualified for it, of course, but it’s easy to see why the people who do this have done it for as long as they have. Hopefully, whatever you’re cooking this year does not require you to call for specialized help. Happy Thanksgiving, and I’ll see you tomorrow.

(Finding this story online, which I had read yesterday in the print version of the Chron, also led me to this story about the terrific Butterball hotline scene from The West Wing. Watch it again, it’s worth your time.)

UPDATE: This, too.