Behind the Beans at Bush Brothers & Company
A small farming community in East Tennessee, Chestnut Hill, is home to one of the state’s most iconic businesses – Bush’s Baked Beans. It all started in 1897, when local farmer A.J. Bush founded a general store and, later, a tomato cannery. Bush Brothers & Company grew from one generation of the family to the next, developing its signature baked beans along the way. Eventually, Bush’s Best Baked Beans became a nationally known brand with a popular canine spokesman, Duke the dog.
More than a century later, the Bush family still oversees the company. “We’re in our third, fourth and fifth generations of ownership,” says Max Fultz, manager of Bush’s Visitor Center.
While Bush Brothers used to can tomatoes and other vegetables, their focus has narrowed to beans and hominy, consistent top sellers. “The beans come in from North Dakota and Michigan,” Fultz says. They are cooked, seasoned and packed on-site at Chestnut Hill and in Bush’s second manufacturing plant in Augusta, Wisconsin. “The Augusta facility does the same operations as Chestnut Hill,” Fultz says. “It’s smaller in size and scope, but they produce everything up there except Bush’s Grillin’ Beans.”
If You Go...
Location: 3901 U.S. 411, Dandridge, TN 37725
Store Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday Museum Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday Café Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday
Phone: (865) 509-3077
While Bush Brothers is best known for its baked beans, the company also runs a successful side hustle – a beef cattle farm. Using wastewater from the bean plant to water the pastures, Bush Brothers raises a herd of grass-fed cattle on about 2,000 acres in Chestnut Hill and 1,000 acres in neighboring Cocke County. Making use of bean waste and processed water from the manufacturing plant, the cattle farm creates an environmentally sustainable and profitable arm of the business.
In 2010, Bush’s Visitor Center opened in Chestnut Hill, partially in response to customer demand. “We’re located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, so we were having people stop in every day asking if we did plant tours, or if they could buy products on-site,” Fultz says. “The Visitor Center is an opportunity to meet our consumers face to face and thank them for choosing our products, but also get their feedback.”
Located inside a remodeled version of the original A.J. Bush & Company General Store, the center features a museum, café and gift shop. Inside the Bush’s Story Museum, guests can trace the history of the company, learn how the beans are manufactured and shipped today, get a peek inside Duke’s doghouse, and enjoy a number of interactive exhibits. “We can’t take the public inside the plant since we are a food processing facility,” Fultz explains, “but inside the museum, we have a film that shows the process.”
The gift shop offers a variety of Southern-themed gifts, old-fashioned candy, Duke and Bush’s souvenirs and, of course, a wide selection of Bush’s Best Beans.
Outside the center, visitors can pose with a vintage A.J. Bush & Company truck and cutouts of ad spokesman Jay Bush and Duke. The famous golden retriever makes sporadic stops at the Visitor Center, Fultz says, but his timing is unpredictable. “He does show up on occasion, although we don’t have it scheduled – we might find out a day or two in advance, and he comes about two or three times a year.”
The Bush’s Family Café, next door to the museum, specializes in home-cooked Southern fare. “We have a lot of made-from-scratch food and homemade pies,” Fultz says. “We make as much fresh as we can.” The café’s most popular dishes include daily entrée specials, traditional side dishes like fried okra, turnip greens and baked beans, deli sandwiches, homemade chicken and tuna salads, and a signature dessert – pinto bean pie. “It’s a really old recipe dating back to the 1800s,” Fultz says.