Long before Chattanooga had an official “innovation district” the city and region incubated some of America’s most iconic product brands. In the 21st century, the city may come to be known as a cradle for automotive innovation (Volkswagen) and high-tech start-ups, but the city’s 20th century business legacy was built on bottled soft drinks (Coca-Cola) and little square hamburgers (Krystals).
Feeding America’s sweet tooth was another Chattanooga-area specialty. Both the Little Debbie snack cake empire based in Collegedale and the MoonPie, introduced by Chattanooga Bakery, became part of the nation’s comfort-food tradition.
And the early decades of the 20th century Chattanooga was the birthplace of the tow truck and by the beginning of the 21st century citizens here were assembling automobiles — including the Volkswagen Atlas seven-passenger SUVs, which first rolled off the line here in 2017.
The region has also had its share of forward-thinking entrepreneurs: the Lookout Mountain Tom Thumb golf course helped start a national fad and Cleveland Tennessee’s Check Into Cash company helped pioneer the payday lending industry.
Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 by an enterprising Atlanta pharmacist, Dr. John S. Pemberton. At first, the kicky new beverage sold for a nickel a glass, and was available only at drug store soda fountains. Before he died in 1888, Pemberton sold a controlling interest in the company to Atlanta businessman Asa G. Candler. The first large-scale bottling of Coca-Cola occurred here in 1899 when three Chattanooga businessmen bought exclusive rights to bottle and sell Coca-Cola for just $1. The businessmen — Joseph Whitehead, John Lupton and Benjamin Thomas — developed what would become a worldwide bottling system. Chattanooga’s first bottling plant was located at 17 Market Street. Twenty years later there were nearly 400 bottling plants in operation. John Lupton’s grandson, the late J.T. “Jack” Lupton, helped create the Tennessee Aquarium, which is credited with kick-starting Chattanooga’s late 20th-century downtown renaissance. Chattanooga Coca-Cola Bottling Co., on Amnicola Highway, the world’s first ever Coca-Cola Bottling franchise, is now owned by by Coca-Cola United, based in Birmingham, Alabama.
Volkswagen Atlas SUVs
Although not the first vehicle made at Volkswagen’s sprawling assembly plant in Chattanooga — that would be the Passat sedan — the Volkswagen Atlas SUV is a true Chattanooga original. Designed specifically for the American market, the midsize Atlas was originally code-named the CrossBlue. It arrived for the 2018 model year just in time for VW, as sales of family sedans like the Passat were flagging in the United States. The Atlas is a three-row SUV with room for seven passengers. It has all the hallmarks of an American family-hauler with 17 cup holders and a panoramic sunroof. Volkswagen is now selling about 4,000 Atlas SUVs a month and the numbers are climbing.
Ernest Holmes Co. tow trucks
As the story goes, Chattanoogan Ernest W. Holmes Sr. invented the tow truck in 1916 as a matter of necessity. Holmes, it seems, was part of a crew who tried to extract a Model T Ford that had plunged into Chickamauga Creek. After struggling for hours to salvage the Ford, Holmes decided there had to be a better way. So, he installed a system of hand-cranked cables on the back of a 1913 Cadillac sedan. His idea eventually gave way to a patent that envisioned two booms, each one with a hand-cranked cable-and-hook assembly attached. His first successful tow truck model, produced by the Ernest Holmes Co. located on E. Main Street, was called the 485, which, not coincidentally, cost exactly $485. Chattanooga is now home to the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and the world’s biggest tow truck maker, Miller Industries.
Long before there were Little Debbies, the Chattanooga area was home to one of America’s most cherished snack brands. The MoonPie originated in 1917, after a traveling salesman named Earl Mitchell reported to his bosses here that coal miners in Kentucky had requested a sweet snack that was “as big as the moon.” The MoonPie — made from Graham cracker cookies with a marshmallow filling and chocolate coating — quickly became a hit with miners. By World War II MoonPies had become one of the nation’s favorite comfort foods. Originally just 5 cents each, MoonPies were both tasty and filling. After WWII a generation of baby boomers took MoonPies to school in their lunch boxes. Today, Chattanooga Bakery makes about a million MoonPies a day.
Tom Thumb Golf
In 1927, Lookout Mountain hotel owner Garnet Carter became the first person to patent a game of miniature golf. The course, called Tom Thumb Golf, was built to draw people to the hotel; but it helped birth an entire industry. Eventually, thousands of Tom Thumb courses opened across the U.S. and Carter ultimately sold the rights to his patent and built Rock City Gardens. The mini-golf fad became red hot in 1930. Of the 25,000 mini-golf courses in operation by the summer of 1930, about half had been opened in the previous six months, according to a report in the New York Times.
The oldest hamburger chain in the South was started during the Great Depression by Chattanoogans Rody Davenport Jr. and J. Glenn Sherrill. The first Krystal restaurant was opened on Oct. 11, 1932 at 7th and Cherry streets in downtown Chattanooga. The first customer bought six Krystals and a cup of coffee for 35 cents according to Krystal.com. The restaurant featured made-to-order breakfasts and the “little square hamburgers” that would become a Southern tradition. The company was based on the principles of cleanliness, courtesy, food quality and value. The company creed was a good fit for hard times, and has proved a durable formula for more than eight decades.
Check Into Cash
The Cleveland, Tennessee-based Check Into Cash company, which began in 1993, helped pioneer the so-called payday lending industry. Check Into Cash, which specializes in small, emergency-cash loans, has locations in 23 states. Allan Jones, a former owner of the Credit Bureau of Cleveland, started and still owns Check Into Cash and has been called the “father of the payday loan industry.” Jones has used the fortune he made from the business to become the largest property owner in Bradley County and the owner of Hardwick Clothes, the oldest maker of tailor-made clothing in the United States. Check Into Cash is a founding member of the Community Financial Services Association of America. According to the company’s website payday loan amounts range from $50 to $1,000. Customers typically pay back the loan principal and a fee on the day of their next paycheck.
Little Debbie Snack Cake
O.D. McKee began selling snack cakes out of the back of his car for a nickel apiece during the Great Depression. He and his wife, Ruth, bought a small bakery using their car as collateral. The business took off in 1960 when the McKees started selling a “family pack” of baked goods. They named the new brand after their four-year-old grand-daughter, Debbie, and that’s how the “Little Debbie” snack cake was born. An image of Debbie in a straw hat became the iconic emblem of the brand. The Oatmeal Creme Pie was the first item packaged under the brand and a carton originally cost 49-cents. Fourteen million of the cakes were sold within the first 1o months, and a the McKees never looked back. Little Debbie is America’s No. 1 brand of snack cakes. “McKee Foods Corporation, a privately held, family-run company based in Collegedale, Tennessee, has sold more than 157 billion Little Debbie snacks since the brand became available in stores in 1960,” according to the company’s web site.
This story was updated Oct. 22, 2018, at 1:40 p.m. with more information. by Mark Kennedy