For nearly 80 years, McKee Foods Corporation, the parent company of the Little Debbie® brand, has been manufacturing sweet treats. Founded in Chattanooga by O.D. and Ruth McKee, the bakery has grown from five employees and a few thousand dollars in yearly sales in 1934 to more than 6,000 employees across the country and $1 billion in sales today.
That’s a lot of Oatmeal Crème Pies, Swiss Cake Rolls, and Nutty Bars®. In fact, if you lined up all 157 billion of the 75 varieties of Little Debbie® snacks that have been sold since the brand was established in 1960, you’d have enough treats to stretch to the moon and back more than 41 times.
That sweet success is Tennessee grown. Now headquartered in Collegedale, the company is led by the third generation of the McKee family. They continue a long-time commitment to doing business in Tennessee, to creating good jobs for Tennesseans, and to using Tennessee products.
That commitment began early on.
“The company was originally located in Chattanooga, but the operations were later moved to Collegedale in order to create jobs for the students in that rural area,” says Mike Gloekler, corporate communications and public relations manager for McKee Foods. “We have three-quarters of a century of employing Tennesseans. We know their work ethic, and by extension we know that the agricultural products available from Tennesseans in agriculture will be produced with that same ethic and great attention to detail.”
It’s a partnership that works for McKee Foods and for Tennessee. The company uses Tennessee-grown wheat and corn in their products.
According to Ed Harlan, the director of agricultural and forestry development for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, “McKee Foods is a great role model for commitment to the state of Tennessee.”
He cites the company’s long-time participation in the Pick Tennessee Products program as well as their dedication to being on the cutting edge of food safety operations and their commitment to supporting the rural economy through job creation.
“The McKees are true ambassadors for the Pick Tennessee Products program. The company is really 80 years ahead of the curve in terms of vision and commitment,” he says. “You sense an exceptionally strong work ethic across the company, which leads to their success. They’re serious about the job they do, about the products they make, and about being a strong community partner.”
That commitment extends beyond the bakery floor and the corporate boardroom into classrooms and organizations across Tennessee.
“Ruth McKee had a heart for teaching, but she gave up that career to run the business with her family,” says Gloekler. “So any opportunity she had to support the teaching of young people and other educational endeavors, she jumped on it. There has always been a partnership in this company with educational efforts.”
It’s a partnership that includes assistance to employees through tuition reimbursement, to young people in 4H, Junior Achievement, and Adopt-a-School programs, and to the whole state through financial contributions for a Mission Control classroom at the Challenger Center in Chattanooga as well as to fund research in dyslexia and business ethics.
“The McKees have shown incredible vision in not only keeping their company on the edge of innovation, but also in making things better for the people who live in the state,” says Harlan.