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July 21, 2011

Cast Iron Revival Keeps US Foundry Cooking

by Mike Osborne

Tennessee company is last in nation still turning out daily production

Tucked between the Tennessee River and the hills of Marion County lies the small town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Home to just 3,200 people, it has one claim to fame: a metal foundry called Lodge Cast Iron.

Lodge is the last company in the nation still turning out cast iron skillets on a daily basis.

"We produce about 80,000 pounds [36,000 kilos] of cast iron cookware daily," says Bob Kellermann, chief executive officer of Lodge Cast Iron. "We have two high-production molding lines and each molding line will crank out 400-plus molds per hour and we run two 10-hour shifts a day, so you can do the math."

It adds up to a successful fourth-generation family-owned business that's been turning out cast iron cookware for more than a century. Lodge used to have several American competitors, but they all went out of business years ago.

Investing in new technology was the key to keeping Lodge alive.

"We re-invested our earnings every year to become more mechanized," Kellermann says. "Had we not mechanized over the years, we would’ve been out of business many years ago.  Some years we survived in spite of ourselves."

Innovating into the future

Lodge has also continued to innovate. Its most recent improvement turned out to be a marketing bonanza. Several years ago, the company began seasoning its cookware before it leaves the factory.

Oil has to be baked into a skillet's cast iron pores before it can be used, a process many cooks find intimidating.

"In a short five years we went from nothing seasoned to everything seasoned," Kellermann says. "And our slogan, when we introduced it: ‘We should have thought of this a hundred years ago.’"

Lodge has developed its own recipe for consistently producing cast iron with just the right characteristics.

"We have a spectrometer that in, oh, about 45 seconds we know 19 different elements that we can adjust for," says Larry Rado, Lodge's technical manager who is in charge of quality control. "We know exactly what we melt and we know exactly what’s going into our cookware."

Lodge also adopted the Japanese approach to improving product quality, by empowering its employees.

"Anyone here at Lodge Manufacturing can throw a casting away," Rado says. "Anybody, from the grinders, finishers, packers, we can actually stop the line."

Cast iron revival

But advanced technology and management techniques don’t tell the whole story. Lodge is also benefiting from a kind of cast iron renaissance.

At the Hermitage Hotel, in nearby Nashville, executive chef Tyler Brown uses cast iron to prepare and serve some of the Capital Grill's signature dishes. The cholesterol-heavy cuisine of the American south fell out of favor for a time but Brown says southern culture and foods are suddenly popular again.

"The South is hot right now," says Brown. "People enjoy what we do, enjoy the tradition of our culture that needs to be spoken about, talked about, and passed on; and what better place than around the table to get that started."

Lodge Cast Iron is riding the crest of that wave, putting out dozens of new products, from cast iron woks to Dutch ovens made for the campfire.

Kellermann gets emotional when he considers what his great, great grandfather would think of his small foundry today.

"And I think old Joe Lodge and the rest of the family that's gone on would be very proud of the company seeing it as it is now," he says.

Lodge Cast Iron is looking to the international market for continued growth. Its cookware is now sold in Japan, Russia, and the Philippines.