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Andy Sullivan: Against The Grain

Last week, my family and I journeyed to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. One of our stops I enjoyed the most and found most interesting was the Bush’s Beans Visitor Center, located in Dandridge, Tennessee.  Sit back and relax while I roll that beautiful bean footage!

The company that makes Bush’s Best brand canned baked beans was founded in 1908 by A.J. Bush.  Before that, however, A.J. Bush founded a general store and, later, a tomato cannery.  Today, Bush Brothers & Company is headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee with production locations in Chestnut Hill, Tennessee.  Chestnutt Hills is the location we visited.

For decades, Bush’s had been quietly producing quality canned products.  While some sold under their own label, many of their products were packed and branded with store labels.  In the late 1940’s, they decided that their products would sell under the new Bush’s Best brand.  While it looked a lot different back then, it was the beginning of what would grow to become one of the best-known brands in the country.

After the death of son Fred Bush in 1959, Claude Bush assumed the role of President.  He found himself at the helm of a company that had been run responsibly and conservatively and was now in position to expand.  Claude bought several struggling canneries throughout the Midwest and South.  To facilitate more efficient transport of products, they launched their own trucking line-Tennessee Truck Lines-in 1962.

Throughout the 1950’s, green beans had become the lifeblood of the business-along with other fresh items including greens, spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes and fresh southern peas.  The Tennessee/North Carolina border region was a productive green bean farming area, and the beans could be brought into Chestnut Hill from several family farms-with which Bush’s cultivated strong relationships-for canning.

In 1952, they decided to sock and can dry beans, which could be easily stored, and prepared whenever a canner was finished processing fresh vegetables.  It was a decision that would lay the groundwork for the company’s growth not only over the next several years, but for decades to come. 

“My mother was an excellent cook.  My cousins and I still have fond memories of Sunday dinners at home.  We decided that what we would do is make a baked bean recipe that was as near what Mother could make as possible”-Condon Bush

Food and family have always been at the heart of our story.  Compiled by Jean Bush Nankivell, one of AJ’s granddaughters, these cookbooks contain recipes that Bush’s family members have enjoyed together for generations.  Many were also the basis for Bush’s products.  

The late 20th century found Bush’s in a dramatically changing business climate that saw price wars and food companies being bought and sold.  To ensure a profitable business that could carry on well into the future, Bush’s reinvented itself on a number of levels, led by cousins Condon Bush and Jim Ethier.

Their success required careful stewardship of the company-including a series of difficult decisions, a shift in focus and an enduring commitment to Bush Brothers & Company core values.   

Jim Ethier is a third-generation member of the Bush family who served the company for more than 50 years with roles ranging from Treasurer and CFO to President and CEO to Chairman of the Board.  Jim guided Bush Brothers & Company through a period of challenge and transformation, while enduring they never strayed from who they are at heart.  His vision, leadership and impact on the company culture continue to shape the company’s growth and story today.

In the early 1990’s, Bush’s made the critical decision to elect a new board of directors-the first ever to include board members from outside the family.  Bush’s invited four highly qualified industry executives to sit on their restructured board of directors.  Each offered not only sound outside business judgment, but also had an understanding of Bush Brothers & Company’s vision and sense of values.  

With a new board of directors in place, the company introduced their first normal mission statement and strategic plan.  Developed by 31 professionals from across the organization, the plan provided a roadmap to re-architect the company, sharpen focus on beans and reaffirm their commitment to the values that shaped Bush’s from the beginning.  

On May 9, 1994, the first “secret family recipe” television spot debuted nationally, featuring Condon’s son Jay Bush. The response was incredible, as Bush’s quickly became a household name and Jay and Duke a part of American pop culture.  In fact, there was a lot of merchandise in the store with Duke’s likeness plastered on it.  It’s worked, as Bush’s had grown to achieve a 70% share of the baked beans market in just a few short years! However, while you probably think of the iconic duo of Jay and his dog Duke, Duke actually wasn’t in the first commercial.  It was only Jay and the secret family recipe.  

I’ll end this journey into Bush’s with some trivia.  Which U.S. state grows the most beans? North Dakota grows more beans than any other state in the country, producing about 1/3 of the total dry bean crop.  Are all Bush’s Beans from the U.S.? Bush’s Beans products are sold throughout Canada. They source beans for these products from farms north of the border.

Bush’s uses tons of dried beans each day, literally.  In fact, the amount of beans they use daily weighs nearly as much as five fully loaded 737 airplanes! 

Some people call them Garbanzo Beans, others call them chickpeas.  Did you know that those beans are the base for hummus? Another fun fact: behind soybeans, Garbanzos are the second-most widely grown legume in the world.  Roasted chickpeas can be used as a caffeine-free alternative to coffee.

Low in calories and fat but high in protein and fiber, black beans are pint-sized powerhouses of the bean world.  Black beans are a staple in many Central and South American cuisines-and a go-to on taco night here in the United States. Fun bean fact: black beans are rich in antioxidants, which can protect your body and reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Navy beans have been a staple in the U.S. Navy since the 1800’s-that’s where the name comes from.  These hearty, dense and delicious beans have the starring role in the Secret Family Recipe.  All Bush’s Baked Bean products are made with Navy Beans.  Fun bean fact: Bush’s buys 20-25% of the entire U.S. crop of Navy Beans each year.

Kidney beans get their name from their distinctive shape,  Dark, full-bodied and packed with flavor, Kidney Beans are a mainstay in Mexican, Southwestern and American cooking.  They’re also the not-so-secret ingredient in the perfect chili. Kidney beans come in a variety of colors and patterns: white, cream, black, red, purple and spotted.  

Pinto beans: Pinto is the Spanish word for “painted”.  You might not recognize them all mashed up, but pintos are the main ingredient in refried beans.  Pintos are very popular! While they originated in Peru, Pinto Beans are now the most common bean in the United States.  We finish on the Great Northern Bean.  These beans thrive in the cold, northern temps.  A natural addition to soups, stews, dips and white chilis, Great Northern Beans are a true comfort food classic. I’ll end on a fun bean fact: Great Northern Beans make the perfect casserole hack-adding them in absorbs moisture and avoids a runny casserole.  There you have it: everything you ever wanted to know about beans but never thought to ask! And it’s definitely worth a trip to the Bush’s Beans Visitors Center in Dandridge, Tennessee. Check out my column, Blendertainment, at the links below:    


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