Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 26, 2019

Lodge thrives in a fast-food world

Cooking revival, willingness to adapt help 109-year-old company thrive

Cast iron carries the weight of history. It remains largely made the same way it has been for hundreds of years, and short of violent neglect, cast iron cookware should last for generations, which makes the story of Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg all the more incredible.

In these days of planned obsolescence for much of modern manufacturing, how does a business whose bread and butter product is a cast iron skillet not only thrive, but expand production capabilities? The answer starts with the distant branches of a family tree.

Joseph Lodge, the man whose name now sits stamped upon thousands of those black skillets, saw South Pittsburg – about 30 miles west of Chattanooga – as a land of promise, much like other industrialists of the day. With its proximity to rail lines and the Tennessee River, entrepreneurs of the late 19th century bought into the hope that the Southern namesake would someday rival that of Pennsylvania’s steel city.

Lodge opened the Blacklock Foundry in 1896 and, after it burned a few years later, reorganized and reopened as Lodge Manufacturing Company in 1910. The rest, they say, is family history, as his company has remained in hands of the original Joseph Lodge bloodline.

What helped Lodge survive the turns in taste toward new cookware and materials like Teflon and spun aluminum was a simple recognition that folks who didn’t grow up cooking with cast iron were intimidated by it.

First, it was heavy compared to new pieces, and unwitting neophyte cooks took that as something bad, not understanding how heat transfer works.

Second, they seemed scared of the seasoning process that new cast iron has to go through before cooking with it. And so sales for skillets and Dutch ovens continued to decline.

What was it that ultimately saved Lodge from the fate of the other now-shuttered manufacturers like Griswold and Wagner? Lodge developed a method for pre-seasoning all of their cookware, removing what they saw as the biggest hurdle to new sales.

That decision coincided with the boom of food media and interest in cooking from a whole new generation. Chefs began to put “cast iron skillet” on their lists of things every home cook should own.

Cast iron accounted for 4% of the U.S. cookware market in 2002, Lodge spokesperson Mark Kelly says. It now accounts for 15%.

Lodge products are sold by such recognizable retailers as Walmart, Target, Bass Pro, Crate & Barrel and Cracker Barrel. It also has its own online store, is an official site on Amazon.com and operates “factory stores” in South Pittsburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Shepherding the company through this growth was Bob Kellerman, the charismatic great-grandson of Joseph Lodge, who worked his way up from sales to president of the company. He also plowed a lot of the profits back into the company, investing in state of the art technology to speed the process.

Cast iron is still made using melted iron that’s poured into molds. Lodge uses sand molds that are compressed with clay and have enough moisture to hold shape when the two halves are banded together. This all used to be done manually, from the mold pressing to banding to the ladling of red-hot molten iron.

Today, a machine from Denmark makes the molds with pistons and moves them along the line for pouring. On a recent visit, a Danish engineer was proud that it was exceeding specs by producing 553 molds per hour.

The molds are then shaken apart, the cast pieces separated while the sand is captured to be used again. After blasting with small pellets, washing and checked for quality, it goes through the secret seasoning phase where it’s heated and a fine coating of vegetable oil is applied.

It takes less than two and a half hours to go from pouring to packing in a box for retail, Kelly says.

Taking a break from the line, Dwight “Chico” Collier makes it clear he doesn’t long for the old, manual days.

“I wasn’t planning on staying,” he says of his first days at the foundry 45 years ago. “It was hot, so hot, and it was a lot dirtier.” Collier has seen his share of folks walking out almost as soon as they walk in.

Collier’s grandfather, father, brother and now sons work at Lodge. He adds, quite sincerely, it’s the family of people that have kept him there all these years. He contemplates retiring next year when he turns 65, but isn’t sure.

When asked for advice about cast iron seasoning, he says, “Just rub some grease (shortening) on it and throw it in the fire! Even if it’s gotten rusty, just clean it off and re-season.”

Collier tells a funny story about the horror of his wife who put a new three-piece set he brought home in the dishwasher. “The next day it was all rusted up. She’s my ex-wife,” he says smiling.

The work inside is still hot and dusty, but a ventilation system helps immensely. Old timers warn the new folks not to run when the yellowjackets, the sparks from pouring molten iron, start flying.

“If you just stand there, they bounce off of you,” Kelly explains.

With a new state-of-the-art foundry a small skillet’s throw from the original, they’ve been able to more than double capacity. Shipping has been moved from a small building with four bays to a new warehouse just across the Tennessee River with 22 bays and 212,000 square feet under roof.

Lodge’s future seems bright as new innovations cajole old and new buyers. A new enameled line is made in China but with Lodge’s quality control now competes with high-end lines like Le Creuset from France.

Lee Riddle, a great-great-grandson, now helms the sales for the company and sees opportunity and deep commitment to the town and the people who work for the company. Having started with PepsiCo and come to Lodge, and South Pittsburg, later in life, he sees it as an honor to work there.

Lodge seems to have no interest in making skillets that don’t last a lifetime and then some.

“Like a baseball glove,” says Collier, “Cast iron only gets better with age.’’

Finding creative ways to put skillets and other products in new hands will forever remain the challenge.