NAPERVILLE, Ill. — Workers at Butterball's turkey-tips hot line are used to oddball situations:
- The woman who cleaned out her turkey with a scrub brush and asked if that was OK to do. (You don't need to do that.)
- People who thaw a turkey in the bathtub while washing their kids. (Don't do that, either.)
- A man looking for a quick way to cook his turkey who put it in the oven on the cleaning cycle. (Also not advisable.)
For Butterball, the nation's top-selling turkey brand, preparing for such out-of-left-field calls is serious business.
Each year, Butterball L.L.C. puts on Butterball University. This year, it involves five days of training for newcomers to the the hot line that answers 12,000 calls on Thanksgiving Day alone.
Dozens of 3-inch-thick blue binders await trainees, all of whom are armed with degrees in nutrition, food science, or home economics. The binders are so stuffed with turkey information they weighed nearly as much as the bird itself.
Through the nearly three decades the Turkey-Talk Line has been around, thousands of people have called in frantic moments to ask its experts everything. These binders anticipate it all: cooking temperatures, thawing techniques, cooking times, meat thermometers, carving knives, turkey sizes, presentation tips, food safety concerns and the eternal question of how much stuffing is too much.
Emergency hot line
"On Thanksgiving Day alone, there is never a point in time where we can stop. There's always somebody waiting to talk to us," said Nicole Johnson, who delayed her honeymoon in 2001 to work her first shift on the hotline.
The hot line (at 800-288-8372) functions year-round, mainly as an automated tip line. The goal is to position the nation's best-selling turkey brand as the expert in the field.
But each November and December — prime turkey-eating time — the hot line goes live. Fifty-five operators are on hand as the hot line receives 100,000 calls.
Before each live season starts, experts who have worked on the hot line for three years or less gather for several days of intensive turkey training from their turkey elders. Some of the women — yes, they're all women — have worked on the hot line since its inception.
The dozen or so newer workers also learn about the brand from marketers from Butterball, which is based in Garner, N.C.
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After a turkey overview that included information on buying and thawing turkeys, trainees get the day's main task.
Each is assigned a turkey and given directions to make it with a different method, from an open pan to a cooking bag. The idea is to be familiar with all the ways people might make a turkey. Even in the microwave.
And it's not just Butterballs they cook. The company trains specialists on different brands of turkeys, because anyone can call the hotline — not just Butterball buyers.
They pore through recipes, noting what's popular each year, because that's what callers will ask about. But they end up making the basics: roasters, ovens, and even grills and deep-fryers, which have grown in popularity.
It's not just about cooking ability. Turkey-making is just as much about confidence. That's what Mary Clingman, director of the Turkey Talk-Line, likes to instill in her callers, many of whom are first-time turkey makers.
"As you go through these things step by step ... they're feeling better about themselves because they realize what they're going to do is not as bad as they thought it was going to be."
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