This story was originally published in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of the Chattanooga Magazine.
A one-time Southern kid remembers her grandmother pulling a steaming skillet of cornbread from the oven and placing it on the stovetop. Kids whose families camped think of black Dutch ovens suspended over the campfire, warming a delicious stew. Most would agree, these products have an authenticity like no other.
Within many families, these cast iron cooking implements have been passed down through generations. They are simple heirlooms that perform today, the same dutiful way they have always performed—cooking fresh food, flawlessly and evenly. Remarkably, much of the cast iron cookware made since the late 19th century was manufactured at a foundry on the banks of the Tennessee River, northwest of Chattanooga. Founder Joseph Lodge settled in South Pittsburg, Tennessee in 1896, establishing the foundry that is still there today, having survived multiple wars and economic depressions. His descendants have expanded the reach of the product.
“The cookware is versatile, induction ready, extremely durable and still a great value,” says Chairman and CEO Bob Kellerman of Lodge Manufacturing, a grandson of Founder Joseph Lodge. The company is run by he and President Henry Lodge, also a great grandson.
Kellerman has just returned from a three-week trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. He and other Lodge Cast Iron executives recently introduced the product at the country’s largest housewares show where it was (not surprisingly) well received. South Africa is just one of over 50 countries where Lodge Cast Iron is distributed to hundreds of retail outlets. The maker’s international business has more than doubled in the last six years. But that is nothing compared to the revival the brand has experienced here at home, causing the 118-year-old family owned company to undertake a significant expansion. “Our brand has become so hip we have had capacity issues,” says Kellerman.
For the last 18 years Lodge has also exhibited at the world’s largest international trade show, the Ambiente Show, a housewares and consumer goods trade expo in Frankfort, Germany. Over 150,000 people attend annually and according to Kellerman it has raised the profile of the Lodge brand, exponentially. He believes there are several good reasons why Lodge continues to be a vibrant brand.
“We have an unwavering commitment to quality, an innovative and extensive line with distribution in three main channels,” says Kellerman. “We reinvest in the product and we have dedicated and passionate employees.” For him innovation includes being a sponsor of the Southern Foodways Alliance, sponsoring events like the Chattanooga Market’s Lodge Cast Iron Cookoff and getting Lodge Cast Iron used in a host of cooking shows. Currently, its third cookbook is in print.
The company has an appeal among chefs for a variety of reasons. This year’s winner of the Lodge Cast Iron Cookoff, held annually at the Chattanooga Market was Michael Lindley, chef of Public House Restaurant, who has used the carbon steel skillets for searing and sautéing fish. The restaurant also uses the Lodge 12” pan to bake cornbread for seasonal menu items.
“Their product distributes the heat much more evenly,” says Lindley, who used the mini-skillet from the Lodge specialty line to serve his winning pasta dish in September. The event, featuring the talents of local chefs as they cook before the crowd using the Market’s fresh produce and meats, continues to grow each year. Along with the mini-skillet the specialty line includes, a sauce kit, melting pot, baking pan, wok, several grill presses and a Panini press.
Lodge’s own retail outlets stock a broad selection of distinctive gift items, plus factory seconds in four southeastern cities. The well-known cast iron fried egg graphics are applied to hang tags, cookbooks, potholders, dishtowels, grilling aprons and a variety of kitchenware items, adding a playful quality to otherwise practical merchandise. There seems to be something warm and comforting about this dark and dusky product that is almost inexplicable. From walk-through traffic at trade shows to comments on social media, anecdotes about customers’ memories of the cast iron skillet or corn muffin bakeware are at the heart of its popularity.
“They’re such good stories,” says Laura Candler, the company’s social media director. Lodge has developed an active social media presence and an easy-to-use online consumer insight survey.
Director of Divisional Sales, Lee Riddle, agrees. “People are compelled to tell us their emotional connection to the brand.” Campers often have especially great stories and the Boy Scouts of America has officially licensed a Camp Oven with a custom engraved cover featuring the organization’s emblem.
Adaptation Equals Survival
The company has a history of adaptation. The foundry was converted in 1950 from a hand-pour process to an automated molding one and upgraded again in 1992 when it replaced coal-fired furnaces with an electro-magnetic induction melting system, earning a Tennessee Governor’s Award for Excellence in hazardous waste reduction.
The latest expansion and upgrades are expected to be complete this month and include an expanded seasoning line, a new electric furnace, an improved molding line and sand system—all for a 50 percent increase in capacity. The product will go from molten iron to packaged product in less than two hours.
In 2002, Lodge introduced a line of seasoned cookware, which has practically revolutionized the appeal and subsequent demand for the product. “Millennials have embraced cast iron as healthier, more authentic, and now, easier to use,” says Kellerman.
Along with its rise in demand the company broadened its line in 2005 when it imported a porcelain-enameled line of cast iron from China, in the style of Le Creuset, the signature enameled cookware from France. However, Lodge offers it at a more affordable retail price.
The Lodge Signature Series was introduced in 2007 combining stainless steel handles with cast iron vessels. The line won an industry award for Best in Show from the International Housewares Association. And, in 2011, the manufacturer launched two additional lines, Lodge Elements and Lodge Seasoned Steel, a lighter weight carbon steel skillet series Kellerman calls “brutally tough.” He says it’s perfect for searing fish and other meat.
A Sense of Place
The town of South Pittsburgh is a perky town of about 3,300 residents and about that many visitors tour the Lodge facility during the annual National Cornbread Festival on the last weekend in April, when the community is flooded with visitors.
The riverside hamlet has a vintage theater called The Princess, an attractive Main Street, historic churches, shops, a restaurant, post office and neighborhood sidewalks.
The 270 employees of Lodge Manufacturing live in town, or in nearby communities. Most of them have worked for the company for a dozen years or more and they seem pleased to see it grow. The expansion has added jobs, too, says Kellerman.
He and his wife Cheryl have raised their two children here. And, although they have traveled all over the world, they will likely retire here. The Sequatchie Valley is that beautiful. Kellerman’s advice for Chattanooga area businesses—
“Find your niche and keep it relevant.”
Visit lodgemfg.com or Facebook.com/lodgecastiron for more information.
Photography Courtesy of Lodge Manufacturing