Ellsworth McKee: From Lean Times To A $1 Billion Operation

Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Ellsworth McKee
Ellsworth McKee

Ellsworth McKee told the Hamilton Place Rotary Club on Wednesday how his family went from sleeping in the back of a small bakery on Dodds Avenue to operating one of the most successful bakeries in the country with over $1 billion in annual sales.

He also told the club the huge operation now based in Collegedale rarely made a profit in the early years.

Mr. McKee said his father, O.D. McKee, first worked pulling corn at 50 cents a day. He said at the time the family lived in a tiny log house that had been built for slaves.

He said O.D. McKee met a cookie salesman and inquired about following that trade. The salesman said the company had an opening in Chattanooga.

The speaker said his father began peddling cookies out of a 1929 Whippet. He said he would take the back seat out of the Whippet while working during the week, then put it back in on weekends.

He said his father got involved with a small bakery on Main Street, then in 1934 moved to Dodds Avenue, where Goodwill Industries is now located. He said at first O.D. McKee put up a sheet near the back of the bakery and the family lived behind the sheet. The milk was kept in a cellar below the back area. He said later the family lived in a small house near the bakery on Dodds.

Mr. McKee said his father had taken courses at Southern College in Collegedale, but he had dyslexia and never finished. He quit because his brother took a different course of study and quit reading his lessons to him. O.D. McKee was told he could get his diploma if he ever finished two final courses. Ellsworth McKee said years later Southern officials found that old diploma and presented it to him.

O.D. McKee decided in 1946 to move to Charlotte, N.C., to start a bakery there. Ellsworth McKee said he remembers his first job there was painting some metal pipes that were to be used for trusses in the bakery building. McKee in 1948 handed over the bakery to Herman Lay, who later started the Lay's Potato Chip empire. He said Lay soon came back to McKee and told him he "couldn't do anything with it and wanted him to take it back."

The speaker said the family had to sell their home and move into the back of the Charlotte bakery to make ends meet.

He said the family returned to Chattanooga in 1951 and were involved with his uncle, Cecil King, in a bakery. O.D. McKee acquired it in 1954.

He said in 1956 the bakery needed to expand, and Southern College offered property out at Collegedale. But McKee was skeptical because it was so far out and only two trucking firms would go out that way - one three times a week and another two times.

He said O.D. McKee talked with Dr. Lee Roberson of Tennessee Temple to see if he would make a similar offer. But he said Dr. Roberson chose instead to work on an expansion of the campus in Highland Park.

So it was decided to move out to Collegedale - with construction beginning in 1956. The cookie line went into operation the following year and then a cake operation followed.

The firm came up with a popular snack, but it needed a name. He said O.D. McKee was talking with Bob Moshier and was mentioning his grandchildren. When he got to Debbie, Mosier said, "Little Debbie. That has a ring to it."

The speaker said times remained sparse during this period. He said once the company paid $2,200 to the IRS. He said, "An auditor came out and they gave us the money back."

He said he began studying the operation and told his father "we are losing money on two-thirds of our product line."

By the early 1960s, he said McKee Baking Company began making a profit.

Now he said it has 6,300 employees and produces over 100 food lines.

He said some of his favorites are Nutty Bars, any hard cookie and the new Smores. He said, "We took three boxes of Smores with us on a recent trip to Walla Walla."

River Gallery Has Opening Reception For November Exhibit Nov. 4

The River Gallery November exhibit will feature Christina Goodman, Scott Hill and Tracy Sharp.  The opening reception will be Friday, Nov. 4, from 6:30-8 p.m.  The artists will be present at the reception.    Review for the artists:     Inspired by the Renaissance period, Christina Goodman creates precious treasures ... (click for more)

Tennessee Women's Political Caucus Endorses Wilkinson For State Senate

The Tennessee Women’s Political Caucus, in affiliation with the National Women’s Political Caucus,  endorses Khristy Wilkinson for the Tennessee State Senate, District 10 position on the ballot for the Nov. 8.  “Women will be the deciding factor this election, it is crucial that in this political climate we continue as an organization to support women in ... (click for more)

Domestic Assault Charge Dismissed Against Bobby Stone In Case Involving Mayor's Top Advisor

A charge of domestic assault was dismissed Friday morning against Bobby Stone in a case involving a top advisor to Mayor Andy Berke.  District Attorney Neal Pinkston said Mr. Stone was not read his Miranda rights and the arrest was based on his statement. He also cited the involvement in the arrest by the mayor's office with Chief of Staff Stacy Richardson going to the ... (click for more)

Firefighters Respond To Commercial Fire In Alton Park

The Chattanooga Fire Department on Thursday responded to a fire at Metalcasting Minerals Technologies at 3406 Alton Park Blvd. with five fire companies. Battalion Chief Ashley May said a hopper was full of combustible materials and a small area was on fire. Firefighters opened the hopper's hatch and applied large amounts of water and foam to the burning coal dust-type material. ... (click for more)

Literacy Is Critical

Government spending is often portrayed as a freight train "quickly running out of track." And there is some truth to that statement. There is not an endless supply of money to fund every good idea that comes along, and we must acknowledge that problem. Fiscal responsibility is a must.  That is why spending on priority issues like public education is important. You can spend ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Prayer Over Despair

As a strong proponent of early voting, I joined hundreds at the Hamilton County Election Commission headquarters on Amnicola Highway yesterday to exercise what I consider one of our greatest freedoms – “for the people, by the people.” Candidly, I have never been as upset or as disappointed over my choices for President in my life. Locally I am fine with our candidates but to pick ... (click for more)