In the quiet Chicago suburb of Naperville, Ill., there's a nondescript cluster of beige office buildings set in from a grassy strip along Diehl Road. It may not look like much from the outside, but inside is a tactical support team that each November performs a duty on par with a federal agency: For millions of Americans, it saves Thanksgiving.
The corporate headquarters of Butterball is located at 1240 East Diehl Rd., and somewhere inside that leafy campus is a telephone bank of 50 poultry professionals equipped to answer any question about preparing a turkey dinner. Starting today, the lines are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Central time.
Welcome to the Butterball Talk Line, a Thanksgiving institution now in its 35th year.
Co-director Sue Smith has been there for 17 of those years and watched both public demand for turkey help and the size of her staff grow. Butterball estimates that 10,000 people will call its help line on Thanksgiving Day.
This year, for the first time, the public can also get help via text and, a week before Thanksgiving, that channel will be open 24 hours a day.
Smith said that in 1981, when the help line debuted, "Butterball was ahead of the game in wanting to offer this service."
"Thanksgiving is a huge holiday," she said. "We're there to take the stress off of it."
Though Smith is being modest in putting it this way, the fact is that Butterball's help line is also shrewd marketing, positioning the brand as the turkey experts in the minds of many home cooks, even those who may have bought a Purdue or Bell & Evans turkey.
Brand names notwithstanding, Americans do buy a lot of the big birds this time of year. According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of us will have turkey on our plates this Thanksgiving. That's 46 million turkeys, to be exact, or about 736 million pounds of white and dark meat.
Given how unforgiving turkey can be to prepare, it's little wonder the demand for Butterball's experts has steadily increased, and Butterball has responded in kind. It added a podcast called TurkeyTalk in 2004, began offering cooking tips on Facebook and Twitter in 2008, and unveiled a turkey search engine two years ago.
The decision to adopt texting arose in response to younger, less experienced cooks taking on the burden of preparing Thanksgiving dinner. "We did a survey this year and found out that one out of every three home cooks would prefer to text," Smith said. (That number, for the record: 844-877-3456.)
According to a Butterball publicist, one thing the company hasn't considered is a turkey chatbot, despite its steady adoption of digital platforms in recent years.
"The equity in the Talk Line is that you get to speak to a real person who can help reduce stress and walk you through your questions," the spokesperson said. Texting, which still involves a real person, is one thing, but home cooks apparently don't want turkey advice dispensed by a robot.
Smith's phone crew—who all graduate from something called Butterball University—has evolved in other ways, too. In 2013, the staff added men after the company realized that "more men are cooking, and more men are calling," Smith said.
But two important things haven't changed about the Talk Line in the past 35 years: The most common question is still about how to properly thaw a frozen bird (it's one day for every four pounds, and in the refrigerator), and the likelihood of a crisis peaks as the big day nears. "The closer we get to Thanksgiving is when we get the panic calls," Smith said.
And while Butterball will help an estimated 3 million people make dinner via its online and social-media platforms, Smith still enjoys the one-on-one telephone interactions the best. She's dispensed cooking advice to callers as young and 7 and as old as 91. One woman she knows has called every year for the past two decades.
"I know how to make a turkey," the woman told Smith, "but I just need that assurance that I'm doing it right."