Now you can reach out and touch-tone your way to free recipes, nutrition advice and diet tips. Hundreds of 1-800 numbers on packaged foods provide answers to such off-the-wall (off-the-hook?) questions as:
Is Orville Redenbacher a real person? When will mini-Oreos arrive in New York? Why do the raisins sink to the bottom of the cereal box?
This year, consumers will make millions of toll-free calls to food companies for information about what they're eating, according to Jeffrey Nedelman, vice president of communications for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "Americans love the toll-free numbers and use them extensively," he says.
Between 1,300 and 1,500 callers a day, for instance, phone Nabisco to ask about everything from how to make mock apple pie (with Ritz crackers) to why they can't find Mallomars in the summer (they're not made in warm weather because they'd melt).
At Nabisco, calls are handled by a staff of 17 full-time and 11 part-time "consumer reps," including one who is fluent in Spanish and another who speaks Chinese.
Nearly 2,000 calls daily come in to General Foods, where a staff of 40 answers questions about the company's hundreds of products. Stovetop Stuffing is the item most frequently asked about; callers are always surprised to learn that the stuffing can be baked inside a turkey as well as prepared on top of the stove.
Requests for the Jell-O Jigglers recipe were coming in at such a fast rate that General Foods put it on a voice response unit that could handle 24 calls simultaneously. A Spanish translation of Jigglers (Jell-O cut in fancy shapes) also was offered.
Toll-free hot lines on consumer products have been around for more than a decade. But in the last five years, the number of packaged foods with a toll-free line has nearly tripled, says John Goodman of TARP (the acronym for Technical Assistance Research Programs), a research firm based in Washington, D.C.
"Between 40 percent and 50 percent of all food companies now have some type of an 800 number for customer complaints and input," says Mr. Goodman, whose firm helps companies establish toll-free lines. "Companies get better, faster input from their customers on what they do and don't like about a product. It's an easy, convenient, low-cost way for companies to talk to their customers."
When they don't like a product, consumers aren't afraid to say so. If Orville Redenbacher's microwave popcorn doesn't pop to their satisfaction, they call. If the gizzards are missing from a Holly Farms whole chicken, they call. And if the kiddie game is missing from a Looney Tunes frozen dinner, their kids call. Especially during summer vacation.
"You can always tell it's a kid because they burst out laughing," says Karen Morgan, senior director of nutrition and consumer affairs at Nabisco. "I had a kid call to say he was choking on an Oreo cookie. He started laughing and hung up."
In general, senior citizens, retired and with time on their hands, call more often than young people. The Northeast is responsible for the bulk of the complaint-type calls; runner-up is Florida (perhaps the Floridians who call to kvetch are transplanted New Yorkers).
But not everyone is calling to gripe. Pet owners and even some veterinarians call Nabisco to find out the fat content of its Milkbone dog biscuits. When Nabisco introduced Ritz Bits peanut-butter cracker sandwiches, snack lovers called to
see if there was a peanut butter and jelly cracker in the works. (No, says Nabisco, because the water content of the jelly would result in a soggy cracker.)
When a Country Time lemonade commercial aired last summer, some viewers liked its country-style song so much they called General Foods to request a tape of it. General Foods worked with the commercial's producer, then offered the tape to Country Time buyers who sent several proof-of-purchase documents from the lemonade packages.
Kay Carpenter, manager of corporate communications at Hunt-Wesson Inc., which among other products makes Orville Redenbacher popcorn and Peter Pan peanut butter, said many callers want to know if Redenbacher is a real person, and if so, whether he's married.
"They see him in the ads with his grandson and they want to know if he's available," Ms. Carpenter says. "And some people ask if there is an Orville Redenbacher fan club."
There isn't. But Hunt-Wesson's staffers listen to consumers' suggestions for new flavors of popcorn (which range from licorice to barbecue) and new packages for peanut butter (such as a squeezable bottle). None of the callers' ideas has ever been developed, Ms. Carpenter says, because, "We come up with all our own recipes."
As for the people who are on the receiving end of the toll-free lines, their backgrounds are varied.
At Hunt-Wesson, three consumer relations representatives keep busy answering questions about nearly 25 products, including Swiss Miss hot chocolate, Snack Pack shelf-stable puddings, La Choy Chinese foods, Manwich sandwich sauce, and Hunt's tomato sauce and puree.
"The workers don't stay on the same line for eight hours, but rotate from line to line," explains Kay Carpenter. "You get many of the same questions, and this way it gives them a little break and a little variety."
At Tyson Foods in Springdale, Ariz., 160 calls a day are handled by four full-time staffers and one part-timer; in addition to taking calls, they mail out recipes and rebate offers, and send coupons to callers who complain about a product.
Says Ginny Clark, who has worked for Tyson since September, "We go through some training first, but basically, you just get in here and start working, and listen closely to all the questions."
Nabisco now tries to hire mostly registered dietitians because so many callers have an interest in nutrition. There's a toll-free hot line on nearly 80 percent of Nabisco's hundreds of products, which range from A-1 Steak Sauce to Egg Beaters.
"Yes, it's expensive, but making ourselves accessible to the consumer is very important to us," says Nabisco's Karen Morgan.
She notes that plenty of calls are coming in now about holiday Oreos.
"These are just produced for a couple of months, around the holidays," Ms. Morgan says. "But our customers don't like that. ,,
They say, 'Oh, no! We want them year-round.' "