Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line Is Ready for an Unusual Thanksgiving

The poultry brand knows consumers need different advice this holiday season

butterball turkey hotline operators
Butterball's Turkey Talk-Line staff in 1988. This year's team will be working remotely, like so many others. Butterball

By now it’s a familiar refrain. Just like Easter, Halloween and pretty much every major annual event in 2020, this Thanksgiving is going to be different.

The people behind poultry producer Butterball’s famous Turkey Talk-Line, which goes live today, know it. As such, they are ready to address whatever issues callers might have—whether those are related to thawing time, oven temperature or higher stress levels because of everything happening in the world right now.

“Our experts have a ton of experience,” said Rebecca Welch, senior brand manager at Butterball. “Quite a few of our members have been on the talk line for over 20 years, so they’re prepared for all the emotional support or pep talks or, you know, anything to get a holiday host through their concerns.”

One anticipated change this year is a surge in first-time cooks. Although various polls indicate the vast majority of Americans still plan to celebrate Thanksgiving, a subset intend to do so with fewer people than normal. Travel, after all, increases the chances of spreading Covid-19, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised against it. More gatherings consisting of fewer attendees boosts the odds that a friend or family member with little to no experience will be making the turkey.

Welch said Butterball expects inquiries from these individuals, and that the company’s hotline experts, available at 1-800-Butterball, are equipped to answer questions from people with skills that range from untested beginner to seasoned veteran.

A rise in intimate gatherings also means more shoppers are likely to buy a smaller bird. Welch recommends that people head to the grocery store early to get the best selection. And if only regular-sized turkeys are available, leftovers are an enjoyable part of the Thanksgiving tradition, too.

As for cooking a smaller turkey, Welch said the process is pretty much the same. “The only real difference is length of time,” she explained.

According to the National Turkey Federation, an industry trade group, last year Americans ate 5.3 billion pounds of turkey, amounting to just over 16 pounds per person. Butterball claims it sells one in three turkeys consumed during the Thanksgiving season.

Another factor that’s bound to make this year distinct is the general sense of angst and fatigue people feel from the health crisis, civil unrest, economic uncertainty and a contentious political atmosphere. Nearly a third of U.S. adults say political discussions with family members have become more heated compared to past years, according to a recent survey by the Harris Poll. A similar number admit that the mere thought of debating policy at the dinner table this Thanksgiving causes anxiety.

While the internet’s near-endless trove of how-to articles and videos should have eliminated the need for Butterball’s turkey hotline years ago, it hasn’t. A kind and caring voice on the other end of the line could be why.

“Our talk line experts get a variety of calls every year,” Welch said. “Some people have questions, and some people are looking for support and validation.”

Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line debuted in 1981 with six female operators who relied on notes stored in a Rolodex. That first year, they answered about 11,000 calls.

Since then, the program has grown in a number of ways. In 2013, Butterball added men to its conventional roster of all-women hotline operators. Last year, more than 50 experts assisted over 100,000 callers between early November and the day before Christmas. Typically based in an office just outside of Chicago, this year all hotline staff members are working remotely.

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@hiebertpaul paul.hiebert@adweek.com Paul Hiebert is a CPG reporter at Adweek, where he focuses on data-driven stories that help illustrate changes in consumer behavior and sentiment.