Desperately Seeking DUKE ( A Visit to Bush’s Beans)

Several years ago on a family trip to Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park nestled in the mountains of East Tennessee, we passed the Bush’s beans plant.  I marveled at the large complex but we were on a mission, to take a 10 year old to an amusement park, so we had no time to stop. Each time I’d  see the commercials with DUKE, the famous  Bush’s beans canine mascot  or shop at Ingles Markets and see the rows of Bush’s beans,  I’d be reminded  that the Bush’s Bean plant was fairly close by.

I finally made arrangements to visit with my friend Sara Rose, VP and Director of Government and Industry Affairs for Bush Brothers and Company and after about an hour was almost there. The winding two-lane road has sharp curves and on the morning I went it was full of RV’s carrying tourists to Pigeon Forge and Dollywood.

Bush’s Beans plant – Chestnut Hill, TN

Doggone it:   Signs notified me that the Bush’s Bean plant was ahead and son the large plant spread out to my left. The simple white farmhouse of founder, A.J Bush’s, is located directly in front of it.

A.J. Bush Historic Home – with camera crew

As I made my way past the house I saw a bevy of cameras, a handful of people and……what was that…could it be… DUKE the famous Bush’s Beans dog! DUKE’s silky coat glistened in the mid-morning sun and for one brief second I swore that he saw me and I caught a quick glimpse of those pearly white canines.  I quickly phoned  Sara and asked if it would be alright if I turned around and tried to get a photo, “ Sure, “  she replied, “we’ll see you at the Visitor’s Center in a few minutes. The CEO of Bush’s wants to meet you. ”.

Desperately Seeking DUKE:  I raced back to the parking lot in front of the Bush’s Restaurant and General store, hopped out of my car clutching my smart phone(aka camera) , and prepared to cross the road to the Bush historic family homestead.  Two security guards gently stopped me saying, “Sorry ma’am, you’re not allowed over there, they’re filming a commercial”.  From across the road I futilely scanned the lawn area in front of the historic house but DUKE was nowhere to be seen.

Bush’s Beans Visitor Center

Disappointed, I returned to my car and sped off to the Visitors Center where I sat down with Bush’s President and CEO Tom Ferriter.  I told him about my the near miss of getting to see DUKE and he reassured me , “Duke will be around all day, they’re filming spots for the Country Music Awards so I’m sure you’ll get a chance to see him.” I didn’t want to appear too canine star-struck and  decided to focus on the task at hand.  I spent some time talking with the gracious and engaging Mr. Ferriter who told me about the history and mission of Bush’s.  Some of the things that I especially found interesting were:

-You might think that Bush’s is a huge company but they only have 750 employees and most (about 350)  work in the Chestnut Hill, Tennessee plant.
– School teacher A.J Bush started a tomato canning company in 1904. Over the years Bush’s diversified into different vegetable products including sauerkraut and in 1952 found their niche as they introduced Bush’s canned beans.

– In 1969 Condon Bush (A.J’s grandson) and other employees introduced Bush’s Baked Beans based on a family recipe. Bush’s is currently the #1 seller of Baked Beans.

-Bush’s Beans is still 100% family owned and four members of the Bush family currently work for the company.

-100% of their beans are grown in North America and most are grown in the United States. The number one bean that they buy is navy beans used to make their baked beans.  Mr. Ferriter stated proudly that they “know their growers and our farmers are glad to say they grow beans for Bush’s”.
(Source: www.BushsBeans.com)

Canine Concern:  Sara and I suited up in a lab coats, hair nets, safety goggles,  and ear plugs for my tour through the Bush’s plant.   I made a point of telling Sara about wanting to take a photo of DUKE  and said she felt confident she could make it happen.

Frankie McGill, Area Mgr – Bush’s Beans & Leah McGrath-Ingles Dietitian

Our guide for the tour was Area Manager Frankie McGill.  Frankie supplied a wealth of information about the plant and the process of canning the beans. As we toured the facility what immediately impressed me was the cleanliness of the plant.   We first walked through production lines where beans were rinsed and sorted to make sure no rocks or foreign material would contaminate final products. We carefully made our way past huge vats where beans were being soaked.  From there we visited spice storage rooms and mixing areas, the air fragrant with the smell of different seasoning blends used on the beans.  Sides of bacons, huge tubs of whole fresh onions…. all attest to the commitment Bush’s has to using good quality ingredients in their canned products.  Separate areas had rows of shiny silver cans speedily being filled with various beans before being sealed.   One thing I didn’t realize was that the beans are actually cooked in the cans in large units known as hydrostatic sterilizer.  By large I mean multiple stories high, in fact I learned that Bush’s owns the largest hydrostatic sterilizer in North America (“….and maybe the world!” said Sara Rose) at their facility in Wisconsin.

Beans being sorted
Beans soaking


Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sheer size, mechanization and efficiency of the plant, Sara reminded me “…think about it…what we do here is really about the same as what your grandmother might have done if she was going to can beans.  She’d rinse and sort them, add bacon or onions or seasonings…she’d probably cook them before putting them in the can but we cook them in the can to make sure we reduce risk of food safety issues.”

Bush’s Beans – ready to be shipped out to retailers like Ingles Markets

DUKE’s Busy Day: After finishing our tour Sara and I drove to Bush’s Family Café for some lunch.  There I learned that DUKE was still on the property shooting more commercial spots but would be headed back before long.
The clean and comfortable country style restaurant was full of guests ordering hearty plates of food.  I had a vegetable plate with an order of their “Grillin’ beans” of the day, collard greens, mashed potatoes and onion rings and Sara insisted that I try a slice of pinto bean pie for dessert.  It was fairly sweet but very delicious; I stopped short of finishing the whole slice.

Pinto Bean Pie

Canine Confusion:  We left the restaurant and walked next door to the quaint general store and museum of Bush’s beans history. There, a museum employee exclaimed, “You just missed  DUKE! He left about 5 minutes ago!”  My expression must have shown my disappointment since Sara quickly said, “I’m going to see where DUKE is now so you can get a photo.”
Doggie Downtime: I half-heartedly wandered around the museum and purchased some souvenirs in the general store and then was told, “We’re so sorry,  but the handlers took DUKE back to the house and now he is napping so you won’t be able to see him.”

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie:  Everyone was very apologetic about the fact that I didn’t get to see  DUKE.  In the museum they have a special photo booth and you can pick one of DUKE in a staged background. This is my canine consolation prize.

My photo booth pic with faux DUKE

In talking with both Sara Rose and Tom Ferriter  it’s apparent that Bush’s continues to innovate to make this family owned company viable and appealing in the 21st century to a different type of consumer.   Sara talked about new flavors like their Grillin’ Beans line and beans geared towards culinary innovations.  They’ve also introduced reduced sodium products to address health concerns and smaller sized cans to appeal to consumers with smaller households.    Like Sara,  I do think that Bush’s beams are in the “sweet spot” of providing a safe, affordable, nutritious plant-based protein.  One of the things I asked CEO and President Tom Ferriter was what he’d  like to see happen in the next 10 years.  Tom paused, and replied laughing, “First I’d like to get beans recognized as a vegetable!


Bush’s Beans at Ingles – continuing to innovate into the 21stce.


Ultimately Bush’s goal is to get their beans into the hands of a broader audience.  If Tom Ferriter had his way they would figure out a way  consumers would be able to eat Bush’s  beans with their hands and maybe  in their cars but most of all he would like Bush’s customers to know that Bush’s is a “…company that cares….we’ll change what we do, but not who we are.”

When I returned from East Tennessee I was motivated to experiment with beans.  So I came up with a recipe for Black Bean Truffles.  These are high protein & fiber treats with minimal added sugar.   You’ll be surprised at how tasty they are!

Black Bean “Truffles”


1 cup Bush’s black beans, rinsed and drained

½ cup PB2 (peanut flour)

2 TBSP creamy peanut or almond butter (natural –no added sugar)*
2 TBSP cocoa powder
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/3 c.(-1/2 c) mini chocolate chips. (Add more for additional sweetness)
1/3 c. unsweetened shredded coconut

Food process all ingredients except coconut until it makes a dough-like mass.  Remove from food processor and shape into small truffle balls and roll in coconut. Refrigerate.

*if you would like them to be sweeter use Nutella or a similar product


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