Bush’s Best Beans: A Tennessee Success Story
If you “don’t care beans” about beans, an hour at the Visitor Center of Bush Brothers & Company will change your mind.
You will come to appreciate beans, especially after you sample pinto bean pie.
The delicious bean version of pecan pie is one of many treats at the Family Café adjoining the museum.
Set in the heart of Chestnut Hill, the original A.J. Bush & Company General Store got a remake a few years ago. Some of the original structure of the store remains in the Visitor Center, but lots of “bells and whistles” were added to create an entertaining and interactive experience.
Here’s what I mean:
In the museum, people walk through a giant bean can to learn about the bean canning process. They stand on a scale to find out their weight, not in pounds, but in number of beans (about 94,000 for me). Most popular of all, they peek into the doghouse belonging to Duke.
Duke, the talking golden retriever that starred in TV commercials with Jay Bush, gets so many fan letters that a mailbox was placed by his dog house. He receives dog bones and Monopoly money as payoffs for the family’s secret recipe that he promises to disclose. He is also the star of a comedic video about the history of grilling, a tie-in to the popular side dish, Bush’s Grillin’ Beans. Visitors receive a souvenir picture of themselves posing with Duke.
Watch one of Bush’s classic commercials:
“People bring their golden retrievers and make pictures of their dogs in the trucks,” says store manager Susan A. Merrell, referring to the restored pickup trucks parked outside the entrance.
You would think Duke ran the company!
Actually several generations of the Bush family have steered the company from its humble beginnings into a giant in the American food industry. The success story is told in sections framed by vintage photographs, artifacts, and short videos in the museum’s history section.
This business built on beans began as a tomato cannery in Chestnut Hill. In 1904, A.J. Bush partnered with the Stokely Brothers to open a plant. He bought out his partners in 1908 and formed his own company. Farmers in the hamlets and hollers of East Tennessee supplied wagonloads of produce. Bush Brothers & Company automated the canning process and developed “pork and beans” in the 1930s.
A.J. Bush and his wife, Sallie, lived in a two-story house by the plant and saw the business grow. Their sons, Fred Bush and Claude Bush, expanded the business by adding “table-ready” products and opening more production plants. In 1969, A.J. Bush’s grandson Condon Bush developed Bush’s Baked Beans based on a secret family recipe. (Ask Duke for the recipe.) The company gained a national media presence in the 1990s with a TV advertising campaign featuring Jay Bush, A.J. Bush’s great-grandson, and Duke, his wisecracking golden retriever. The company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008 with the launch of Bush’s Grillin’ Beans.
People browse through the aisles in the country store. Its tall wooden shelves, long wooden counters and barrels of hard candies are reminiscent of turn-of-the-century grocery markets. Locally-made crafts, home decor items, toys, T-shirts and Bush’s Beans are available for purchase. The Duke plush toy is a top seller.
The Family Café serves tasty deli sandwiches, fresh salads and barbecue. A complimentary sampling of Bush’s Beans comes as an appetizer. Children have their own Lil’ Bean Sprouts menu. Pies and ice cream specialties arrive at the table in generous portions.
Obviously many people have “spilled the beans” because word has gotten out about the fun and interesting experience this destination offers. Last year the Visitor Center had around 110,000 guests. School groups focus on the educational elements: a video about the production process and a map depicting many varieties of beans, all a valuable food source for the world’s population.
Chestnut Hill is easy to find—take Highway 92 south out of Dandridge or U.S. Highway 411 east out of Sevierville. Go today and you’ll be able to say you’ve “bean there, done that.”