That a cowboy fell in love with cast-iron cooking on a Nevada cattle drive and went home to evangelize about a Tennessee-made dutch oven may not sound that unusual until you learn the cowboy is a former advertising executive from Tokyo.
Hitoshi Kikuchi had been working with advertising and public relations giant Dentsu when he left stuffy board rooms for dusty trails. It was on one in Nevada where he met “Blacktop,” a trail cook who was using a Lodge Cast Iron dutch oven. Kikuchi fell in love with the outdoor cooking style at that moment and thought it would be a great fit back home. Given Japan’s crowded conditions, people could get out with their families in wide open spaces and cook together.
Fast forward 18 years and Lodge now finds itself “very strong at the moment” in Japan and growing elsewhere in Asia, according to Bob Kellermann, CEO of the company his great-grandfather Joseph Lodge founded in South Pittsburg, Tenn. (population 3,200), in 1896.
Kikuchi went on to write a five-page letter to Lodge Cast Iron saying he wanted to form the Japanese Dutch Oven Society and promote the brand in his country. He visited Tennessee the following Christmastime, “which ruffled my wife’s feathers a little bit,” Kellermann confides, “but when he came over that first time, she became enamored with him. He has been here several times, and I’ve been to Tokyo several times.”
Indeed, Lodge recently hosted four Japanese visitors at the company’s headquarters about 25 miles west of Chattanooga, two of whom were from its Tokyo distributor. The affinity for Lodge products spread from Japan to elsewhere on that side of the world, according to Kellermann.
“We are also doing extremely well and seeing a growing demand for Lodge cookware in South Korea, Taiwan and even the Philippines,” he says. “We have a really growing Asian business, more so than any other international market.”
What does he attribute that to?
“They appreciate our quality cast iron cookware in general; the longevity, versatility and value,” he says.
“A lot of Asian markets see U.S. brands as iconic because of the quality,” agrees Lee Riddle, Lodge’s director of Divisional Sales.
“Lodge is a popular brand, both domestically and internationally. That has really added to the traction of Lodge in Asia.”
Thanks to Kikuchi, Lodge first became associated with outdoor cooking in Japan, but in the years since has evolved to consumer kitchenware there, Kellermann says.
“Our goal is to get a Lodge cast iron skillet in every home in Japan,” he says. “That’s a big goal, and it’s not going to happen anytime soon, but we’re getting traction with kitchenware.”
Lodge actually sells to 50 different countries, with international business accounting for 5 to 6 percent of total sales. The CEO wants to push that to 20 percent while maintaining healthy domestic sales.
“We hope to get to 10 percent in the coming years,” Kellermann says of international sales.
“Some of the same things we’ve been doing, better understanding the markets where we are selling to distributors, more multinational use and care information that can help the end user, like how to clean it, how to use it,” explains Bob Wilkerson, a Lodge salesman who Kellermann credits with being at “ground zero” when it comes to exporting.
“We’ve developed a lot of videos for our market here, and we’re adding Japanese subtitles,” Wilkerson continues. “It reinforces what we do here and encourages the end users to buy another piece. A lot of time we’re marketing to or networking with influencers like chefs, writers, food networks. That also happens in Korea and Japan, exposure of the brand to the folks who are going to buy at the markets.”
Don’t count Lodge out when it comes to its lofty export goals. The company recently received a 2015 Presidential “E” Award for Exporting.
“We are very proud of that,” Kellermann says. “Andy Collier of the U.S. Commercial Service Division of the Department of Commerce’s national office has been an ally for some years. He has been very helpful in all the little peculiarities. He nominated Lodge and the rest is history.”
Kellermann and his wife Cheryl made the trip to Washington, D.C., to receive the award from Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.
“I think they said 25 different manufacturers represented $4.2 billion in sales,” Kellermann notes. “I wondered, ‘Why the hell are we in with this crowd?’ Harley Davidson was the only brand name I recognized, and they’ve been exporting for 100 years. … I was very proud and honored to be in that crowd.”
Lodge officials will likely be rubbing shoulders with successful American exporters for decades to come. For the past 10 years, the company’s products came in trilingual packaging, primarily in English, secondarily in French and Spanish. Kellermann says the company’s global spread has it adding Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Russian and German languages to its care and use packaging.
Another “real bright spot,” according Riddle, is the Netherlands, something he credits to a solid distributor.
“At the end of the day, if you do not have a good distributor, it is not going to help any,” Riddle says. “Also, there is some foundation in cast iron in that particular geography (northwestern Europe).”
Putting the Dutch in American-made Dutch ovens came after an experience similar to that of the the Japanese cowboy (kaubooi). Among the folks from the Netherlands whom Lodge representatives met one year at Ambiente—the Frankfurt, Germany, housewares show that is the largest on the globe—was a chef who had come to the States to work at John Folse Cajun Food in Louisiana.
“He became attuned to cast iron, understanding how versatile it is,” Riddle says of the Dutch cook, who is now a Lodge distributor. “That’s been an attribute.”
Not bad for a company that truly embodies the word “family.” Besides Kellermann’s direct tie to Joseph Lodge, Riddle is a fifth generation member of the Lodge family. That’s not the only reason his company elders can call him “kid.” Having started his business career with Pepsi, Riddle has “only” been at Lodge for eight years. Wilkerson is going into his 23rd year with the company. Kellermann has been there 46 years.
The CEO describes South Pittsburg as “a beautiful little town,” and given his company’s 120-year reign, many of the townsfolk do or have worked there. Lodge employs 285 “dedicated” employees, many of whom are second- and third-generation workers, according to Mark Kelly, the company’s marketing manager, who adds their “25-year club” boasts 25 to 30 employees. (Hang in there, Wilkerson!)
“This is such a neat place,” Riddle says. “Everyone loves it. You can move boulders when you have that. Everyone knows how well we value employees. It’s just a great place; everyone has a lot of pride here. We are very blessed.”
Those happy employees have rolled with constant changes, innovation and expansion. According to Kellermann, “Lodge has four basic principles that have been key to our success over the last 120 years: 1) an unwavering commitment to quality; 2) innovation; 3) reinvestment, and 4) dedicated employees.”
The company essentially “reinvented ourselves” in 2002 with the introduction of foundry seasoned cast iron, “which was a game changer,” according to Kellermann, who did concede to some initial bumps adapting to the new technology. Not that the dark days lasted long. “We just recently completed the most ambitious expansion in our company’s history,” notes the CEO, adding that Lodge is already growing out of that expansion.
The upswing has prompted Lodge’s recent hiring of a social media manager, who has established platforms on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest not only to keep the public up on the products but to help with the recruitment of up to 150 new employees for the expansion.
“We’ve used Facebook in a 50-mile radius to send out announcements that we are looking for new employees,” Riddle says. “Through Facebook, there has been a tremendous response. For millennials, that is where the workforce is going to be.”
He also mentioned that Lodge bought a 3D printer so the product development team can bring new products to market quicker.
But perhaps the biggest existential change for Lodge has been importing enamel cast iron and accessories from China, which came after serious soul searching by a company that is all about high quality products.
“We have two suppliers there who follow our exact quality specs,” Kellermann says. “We do not take a chance with quality when it comes to products. We’ve sent a quality team to China and we have third-party inspections. All these things are in place. We are not going to put our name on anything that doesn’t meet our exact quality standards.”
Was it difficult giving up direct control?
“There was for sure a learning curve. I remember the first containers we had shipped here, before third-party inspections, we discovered defects that we were dealing with here on delivery instead of it having been corrected before it got here.”
“We now visit suppliers at least twice a year,” Riddle says. “It is all inspected prior to going out the door. That is invaluable to have in place. It gives us the insurance that it meets our expectations. It is working very well for us.”
“We have an advantage on the manufacturing side that we are not just an importer,” Wilkerson adds. “Because we are cast iron manufacturers, we know and set the standards of everything we import.”
The same cannot be said for everything everyone else imports, according to Kellermann.
“We see a lot of cheap stuff come in from China at discount prices,” he laments.
Think about it: If manufacturers in the Far East are sending crappy products to the U.S., they are likely selling them at home as well. That kind of quick-buck, short-term thinking likely created the market among countrymen, especially in growing middle classes, for high-quality products like Lodge Cast Iron’s.
“This was an eye opener for me, even five years back,” Kellermann says. “The worldwide public consumer still respects the Made in USA symbol. Consequently, we’ve been advised to put the flag on everything, to let them know it is made in the USA. They love it; it goes back to the cowboy days.”
He obviously means before Hopalong Kikuchi moseyed over the Pacific.