Hamburger Helper

The time has passed when the only relief from bad fast food was Alka-Seltzer. Burger King, the Miami-based restaurant giant, has designed a program to show - or at least pretend - that it cares for its customers.

The toll-free consumer-relations hotline (1-800-YES-1-800) is exactly what it sounds like - a dozen or so sweet-voiced operators answering phones and entering data. "It's sort of like those Time/Life commercials," says company spokesman Michael Evans. "The operators have phone stations, and computer terminals."

Since the 24-hour service went nationwide in October 1989, it has flourished. Operators field an estimated 4200 calls per day, both complaints and compliments, from subjects all across Burger Kingdom. "There have been some changes in how the information is used," says Evans, "but the mechanics of the operation are basically the same. As the operator is talking to the consumer, they're keying in the information. Then the material is passed on and used to develop reports. There's a scoring system used to indicate how well we're doing, both at the level of each individual restaurant and overall."

So what's life like for an operator? Individual Whopper-shape phones? Are they allowed to eat while on the job? Are they allowed to eat McDonald's? Sorry, says Burger King - the process is under wraps and destined to stay that way. "I was unable to arrange a tour of the facility," confessed Evans, sounding remarkably cheery for a man who had failed at the only task requested of him. "It is proprietary information, with regard to competitors. The department head is concerned about that sort of thing." Competitors? Maybe the Hamburglar on a top-secret espionage mission.

Despite the secrecy, New Times refused to be daunted, and finally our efforts were rewarded. An inside source, a former operator we'll describe only as a local college student, bravely served up a heart-stopping description of the nerve center. "It's kind of like a room," said the operator. "One of those big rooms where operators sit. Like a telemarketing place."

According to both Evans and the operator, most of the complaints are about the food. (What a surprise.) To fend off whining about high-calorie this and polyunsaturates that, operators are furnished with a nutrition guide. More substantive complaints are handled with the kind of innovation and efficiency you'd expect from one of America's largest food-service organizations. "If they find a foreign material, like bone or gristle or something to that effect," says the operator, "we ask them to save it and mail it in for lab research. We send them a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Sometimes they mail it even without our help." Other callers, under the mistaken impression that anyone cares what they think, offer suggestions for new food items. "A man called once," says the operator, "and said that we should make a hamburger in the shape of a ferret." To date, the request has not been honored.

Fats and ferrets aside, there is a darker dimension to the enterprise. What people dislike about their fast-food service is an eerily precise gauge of America's subconscious. "I was surprised by the racist complaints," says the operator. "For instance, we'd get a caller who would say, `You've got too many black people in this store.' Well, another less flattering word for black people."

You'd think that any company in its right mind wouldn't even give bigots a second chance, that hate-crime complaints would be wadded up and thrown in the garbage next to yesterday's Whoppers. But Burger King doesn't discriminate, not even against racists. "If someone called with that complaint, about black employees," says the operator, "I'd have to enter it."

"Each call is handled as if it were legitimate," confirms Evans. "From that point on, comlaints are dealt with in the process of following up with the restaurant or the franchisee. It's not the communicator's job to determine the validity of a complaint."

Even so, our confidential source says that operators are given leeway in dealing with obvious cranks: "It's a free number. Kids are bored. There are going to be some calls that are absolute jokes. When you hear laughter in the background, that's a good hint. I once picked up the phone and heard an actual sex act. I listed that call as a wrong number, assumed they were dialing a 900 number and got confused."

Still, the operators are only human, and there are some callers they can't help tangling with. "We all have our groupies, people who keep calling and asking for us, who tell us our voice is sexy," says the operator. "A man once called me and he was playing his guitar. I said he should write a song about Burger King and he did. Called back a few days later. It was about a new sandwich, the Chicken International. It wasn't very good. The song, I mean."

The songsmith, and everyone else, should be discreet about their hotline use. Callers are routinely asked for their names and addresses, and the information is then logged into the computer. If you've called before, Burger King will know. No matter who you are. "Sometimes when I was bored, I would look up famous people, see if they have ever called," says the former operator. "But I wouldn't want the Enquirer to find out Michael Jackson calls the consumer hotline every day at noon."

And what about the number itself, 1-800-YES-1-800? It's a strange number, a miracle of postmodern compactness that simultaneously parodies and affirms the toll-free option. (You can even imagine a little internal dialogue, the skeptic reassured: "1-800?" "Yes. 1-800.") "The number gets mixed reviews," says the operator. "When I was there, I got a lot of compliments. People said it was very easy to remember. Every once in a while someone would call and complain - people who didn't have letters on their phones. But I guess that's just how people are. There are even complaints about the complaint line.

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