Cooked turkeys await critique during training for Butterball talk-line employees in Naperville, Ill. - MCT

Talking Turkey

CHICAGO — Kathy Karl says some calls to the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line stand out.

Two examples: the pleas for help from a nurse who arrived at the dinner party and found the assembly too intoxicated to remember how long the Thanksgiving turkey had been in the oven, and the plaintive call two weeks before Thanksgiving from a recently divorced man who was planning to cook his first holiday meal for his children and wanted it to be perfect.

In contrast with food websites such as, which expects about 25 million visitors in November, (about 20 million) and (about 7 million), the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line remains old-school.

Its experts in Naperville, Ill., field inquiries mostly over the phone. On Thanksgiving Day alone, 10,000 calls come in, roughly one-tenth the call volume Butterball has received each holiday season for the past nine years. The number is 1-800-BUTTERBALL (288-8372).

Also, the company responds to about 5,000 e-mailed questions, and about 1.2 million visitors are expected on the company's website during November. But those numbers are dwarfed by other outlets.

Still, Butterball Turkey executives believe the company has a strong niche and claim they are undaunted by the competition.

In addition to selling turkey, they say, Butterball's core strength is providing live advice from calm experts about cooking, thawing or what side dishes to make.

"Butterball is the turkey expert," declares Kari Lindell, Butterball's marketing director. "We focus on one area." She added that the rise of cooking advice outlets provides an opportunity for Butterball when new cooks choose to take on turkey, whether it's a whole bird for Thanksgiving or ground meat for healthier burgers.

Talk-Line supervisor Carol Miller said Butterball's experts deal with people calling in a panic when their turkey looks blue or purple (common with younger turkeys that haven't developed a thick layer of fat) or asking why they can't find thawing instructions (because it was bought fresh) as well as how to microwave a turkey (a common question posed by college students and those whose ovens have gone on the fritz on the big day — it can be done).

Butterball's personal touch isn't lost on those who follow the food industry.

"The fact that you can call a hot line and talk to an expert who knows how to make the perfect bird is so valuable to the consumer who's feeling so stressed," said Marie Chen, a senior consultant at EffectiveBrands, a global branding company.

"People really feel like they have a lot riding on this meal," said Chen. "They're preparing it for their families, their in-laws, the people who matter the most. And they want it to be perfect."

While websites can provide excellent recipes and even advice, there's the assumption that you can follow the directions. "That's not always the case, especially when stress is high, time is short and there's so much emotion riding on it," Chen said.

Dominance during Thanksgiving is critical for any company that wants to do business with cooks. As a secular holiday, it's the biggest cooking day of the year by a substantial margin. And many cooks spend weeks preparing, so they're likely to make numerous visits to the same website or sites for inspiration, answers or tips.

According to Google Insights for Search, a search-volume measurement tool, cooking searches begin to increase the first week of November, by about 7 percent, increase to 15 percent during the second week and hit a fever pitch Thanksgiving week, more than 90 percent higher than the first week of the month. The increased traffic trumps also-elevated interest the week before Christmas, by about 15 percent. Chicagoans are particularly search-happy the day before Thanksgiving, about 20 percent higher than the rest of the country.

So it's critical for cooking outlets to put their best foot forward at Thanksgiving.

"This is our Super Bowl," said Susie Fogelson, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy at the Food Network and Cooking Channel. She said the company, which also owns Food Network Magazine, is always looking for ways to grow its audience. This week, in time for Thanksgiving planning, Food Network is launching an "In the Kitchen" app for iPad and iPhone.

AllRecipes, in addition to posting 12 different Thanksgiving menus, including gluten-free, Southern, grilling, potluck and a 60-minute meal, started hosting an 81/2-hour-long Thanksgiving-preparation video stream Nov. 20. The program later will be edited into shorter instructional videos for online.

"We spend 11 months preparing for Thanksgiving" said Esme Williams, AllRecipes' vice president of brand marketing. "There's so much content to curate, but the sheer traffic levels are huge. We don't just want to serve the pages, but serve them really fast. Last year, she said, the site had nearly 3 million visitors on the day before Thanksgiving alone.

Butterball is making efforts on Facebook and Twitter, but so far the programs are small, with about 20,000 friends and 1,400 followers. AllRecipes, Food Network and Epicurious are reaching out to their audiences on Facebook and Twitter as well. Food Network has 868,000 fans and 251,000 followers; AllRecipes has nearly 70,000 fans and 209 followers; and Epicurious has 58,000 fans and 72,000 followers.

Butterball's other strength is its tie-in at the grocery store when people shop for turkeys and see Butterball's name. The company, based in Mount Olive, N.C., also is building marketing partnerships. This year Butterball's partners include: Pillsbury, Reynolds Foil, Reynolds Oven Bags, Kikkoman, Stove Top and Cavit wine, as well as Dell and Disney.

Still, talking turkey is a big deal.

Butterball bestows a sterling silver wishbone pin on "freshman" talk-line experts and ups the ante as time goes by: a sterling-silver pin with a sapphire for five years, gold at 10 years and gold with a diamond at 15. Some of the veteran talk-line experts also purchase their own wishbone necklaces and earrings.

"Some of these women have been doing this for 25 or 28 years," said Casey Mullins, a second-year expert.

"Seeing them with their wishbone necklaces and earrings ... to be even close to that is pretty special."

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