Tennessee continues to surprise me. I will go several weeks lamenting about the fact that there are no bars, Indian restaurants, or art house cinemas where I live…but then I’ll read about a scenic hiking trail close to home, or drive through a picturesque Civil War-era town, or stumble upon a surprising museum, and feel invigorated again.
It is this last discovery about which I want to write a few paragraphs today.
The Bush Beans Museum and Visitor Center
A few years ago, my parents toured the Bush Visitor Center in Chestnut Hill, TN. I remember their enthusiastic review of the experience, particularly their raves about the on-site restaurant. They suggested a return visit one day last week, and if I wasn’t as excited as they were about the prospect of touring a plant that is most famous for its production of baked beans, I nonetheless agreed to tag along.
I am glad that I did. Chestnut Hill is a one-trick-pony town just a stone’s throw from North Carolina. Just 40 minutes from where I live, access is via a two-lane country road that winds into the eastern foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. The road passes in and out of thick woods that must look gorgeous in late October. The occasional farm comes into view, along with the odd corrugated metal shack (this is the rural countryside, after all). Less than two miles from our destination, we passed this interesting, naturally-terraced landmass:
A farm was situated on the southern pitch of this land, although I cannot imagine the farmer is able to harvest anything from such tilted earth.
The enormous Bush factory complex came into view as we rounded the next bend. The Visitor Center was on our left. Vintage 1920’s cars mark the entrance, and sit directly across the road from the original house built by plant founder A.J. Bush.
Entrance to the museum is free, and includes a revealing 15-minute movie that details the manufacturing of the company’s signature baked beans and sauce. I have become a label-reader in recent years, and was pleased to learn that the cooking process uses only natural elements. (I read product labels later that same day and it was confirmed: no high fructose corn syrup!) Additionally, the video showed the plant’s concern for the environment; you won’t find any three-eyed fish swimming in the waters of the nearby creek.
One clip showed the trimming (by hand) of bacon for later inclusion in Bush’s baked beans. I was surprised to learn that while 96% of customers surveyed want the bacon included, 98% of customers do not eat it. The informative video was introduced by Duke, the company’s mascot. If you haven’t heard of Duke, know that he’s an enterprising golden retriever who is willing to give away the secret recipe to the highest bidder.
A visit to the museum doesn’t take much time, even if you watch the movie. A single memorabilia gallery takes you through the company’s history decade-by-decade, beginning in the early 1900’s. I love period branding kitsch. The collection on display included old posters and antique cash registers, and I was assured that they have more in storage.
In addition to the gallery, you can step on a scale and learn “your weight in beans.” I apparently weigh 128,256 beans. Is that a lot? You can also get your picture taken “with” Duke. On their first visit, my parents posted next to Duke in a backyard barbecue setting. They sat out the portrait this time, but I struck a simple pose alongside Duke at Monument Valley, a magnificent place that I had the opportunity to visit IRL in 2012. The photo printed instantaneously, and was free.
Your visit starts and ends in the requisite gift shop. It is of the “General Store” variety, and resemble a Cracker Barrel restaurant, with dark oak accents and the usual decorative throw pillows, Christmas ornaments, old-time candies, etc. for sale…along with every type of canned Bush product available. We stocked up on several varieties of beans – and a plethora of Root Beer Barrels, Neccos, and Atomic Fireballs – then made a mad dash for the adjacent restaurant, the Bush’s Best Family Café.
We were seated and were immediately served three samples of Bush’s “Bean of the Day,” one of the company’s “Steakhouse Grillin’” varieties. The menu was impressive, and featured much more than beans. I didn’t take a picture of my lunch, though I wish I had. I ordered the fried catfish, which came with hushpuppies, mashed potatoes, and some of the tenderest green beans I’ve yet tasted. Prices were reasonable and service was excellent, as it usually is in this corner of Tennessee.
We took a different route home, crossed a bridge spanning sizable Douglas Lake, and entered the crossroads town of Dandridge. There were several roadside markers that we did not stop to read; my own research has revealed that Dandridge played unwitting host to an 1864 Civil War skirmish, and that it was the birthplace of Martha Dandridge Washington, aka Mrs. George Washington. Perhaps another road trip is in order?
I am including two links. First, the TripAdvisor review of the restaurant. Second, the general company website for more information about Bush’s and its many brands. The museum and restaurant are closed on Sundays. Note that Chestnut Hill is the manufacturing HQ; the business HQ is in Knoxville.