Jack McKee of McKee Foods told the Downtown Rotary Club on Thursday that McKee is an “interesting story about a little money, a lot of talent and a whole lot of hope put into a little bakery.”
Mr. McKee said in 1934 his parents, O.D. and Ruth McKee, bought Jack’s Cookie Company in Chattanooga. “It was a unique opportunity during the Great Depression and they took a risk.” Several months later, the store moved to a larger location on Dodd’s Avenue.
Ruth McKee’s father, Symon King, became involved in the business, said Mr. McKee. He said the McKees and Mr. King did not share the same vision for the store, so the McKees moved to Charlotte, N.C. and Jack’s Cookie Company became King’s Bakery.
However, the McKees opened another Jack’s Cookie Company. “It was named after the cookie, and not the other way around,” said Mr. McKee. They stayed in Charlotte until 1949, when they returned to Chattanooga to help Ruth McKee’s brother with King’s Bakery, he said.
By 1957, O.D. and Ruth McKee’s son, Ellsworth, were running the Dodds Avenue store and the rest of the business had moved to Collegedale, said Mr. McKee.
Mr. McKee said in the 1960’s snack cakes were packaged in single serve packages for five to ten cents. McKee began packaging six in a box for 49 cents, he said. “Little Debbie” became the brand name for the family pack. The name and logo was inspired by a photo of Ellsworth’s three-year-old daughter, Debbie.
Other snack companies did not begin packaging this way for 15 more years, said Mr. McKee.
During the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s McKee sales doubled every five years, he said.
The company is headquartered in Collegedale, but McKee also has plants located in Gentry, Ark.; Stuart Draft, Va.; and Kingman, Az. He said the firm manufactures 90 different products. Some of the production lines produce 1,000 cakes per minute, he noted. McKee delivers to 48 states.
He said the company employs about 6,500 people nationwide. About 1,000 of the employees hold corporate positions. He said McKee employs about 3,000 people in the Chattanooga area.
McKee also manufactures products under the name Sunbelt. These cereal and granola products are “delicious and less expensive than the competition,” said Mr. McKee.
He said McKee has recently introduced “Smart Snack,” a low-fat option. The McKee website provides more information about the standards for this line of products, he said.