The Tennessee company’s reasonably priced cookware can be found at retailers like Target.
In 1896, England native Joseph Lodge opened his first foundry in South Pittsburg, Tenn., a town of 3,000 residents located alongside the Cumberland Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains.
Lodge chose the small town to begin his business of manufacturing cast iron cookware. It was a family business, in a family town.
It’s now been 123 years, and America’s largest cast iron cookware company is still making top-quality culinary items in this family city. This small town is all about family — and so is Lodge Cast Iron.
Lodge’s family continues to run the business today, making cast iron skillets, Dutch ovens, and a variety of cookware and decorative items. With sales rapidly growing, the family is committed to be the financial engine of this small Tennessee burg.
“The family ownership has always been dedicated to keeping jobs here, so they’ve always tried their best to keep workers employed and reinvest in technology or product innovation and we’ve been able to stay relevant in the marketplace,” said Lodge Cast Iron public relations manager Mark Kelly.
“A lot of companies claim to be family-owned environment companies, but here it really is the real deal. Anybody that works here can tell you any number of stories about how that concept has not only impacted them, but their family members.”
A Product That Lasts a Lifetime
Many Americans have memories of a black, heavy skillet sitting on their family's stove top. A Lodge skillet takes about 2 ½ hours to manufacture and lasts a lifetime. The cast iron skillet only gets better with time.
“The primary key to success is to cook with it all the time,” Kelly said. “The more you cook with it, the better it’s going to be, unlike a lot of products.”
Lodge sells more than 140 items, including a wide variety of skillets of different shapes and sizes. Lodge also offers a line of mini-servers.
“A cast iron pan first of all retains a great heat retention and heat consistency, and if it is seasoned properly… it will essentially last forever,” Kelly said. “That’s one of the reasons it is so highly valued. The more you cook with it, the better it prepares food.”
Kelly continued: “You can use it on the stovetop, in the oven, in the outdoors. It’s a multi-purpose cookware and with one exception, which is delicate sauces, you can prepare anything you want to with an infinite number of cooking techniques.”
The secret is in the seasoning — and we're not talking about salt, pepper and spices.
“It’s an age-old process, and back in the day, you would put lard or fat on the new skillet and bake it at a very high temperature,” Kelly said. “In 2002, we began foundry seasoning, and what we use is soybean oil and we spray it on and bake it at a very high temperature and that starts the process. When you season it at home after our process, it’s baked at a very high temperature and ready to use right away.
“When you cook with it, the better what we call the easy release is enhanced. How that happens is anything you cook, whether it’s vegetables or oil or meat or whatever emits some oils. That oil becomes carbon particles which enhances the seasoning, and everything moves on from there. The more you cook with it, the more carbon particles are created and that creates the easy release for the non-stick process.”
Consumers purchase many different items that require a maximum of care. But do any of these beloved products last more than 100 years and get better as the years roll by?
That’s why cast-iron cookware users are so passionate about their culinary collections.
“A friend of mine went to the University of Virginia back in the ‘70s, and she’s a tiny person, and she came in from class one afternoon and her roommate from New York was about to put her cast iron skillet in the dishwasher,” Kelly said. “She pushed her up against the wall and said, ‘If you touch my cast iron cookware again, I will kill you.’
“It has that lifetime. I have my grandmother’s skillet and Dutch oven that were wedding presents 101 years ago, and some other items that are 80 or 90 years old.”
Lodge Cast Iron products are a mixture of pig iron — which is the original smelted iron — recycled stamped steel and recycled castings and cookware that does not pass quality control. There are also some alloys added in the mix.
“We have a very specific formula for the cookware,” Kelly said. “We are a grey iron foundry and the cookware doesn’t turn black until it seasons. It depends on what oil or fat you use to season it. Once that gets heated up, it turns black.”
Lodge Cast Iron melts its metal at 2,800 degrees fahrenheit, and then it is deposited into a pouring mechanism. It is poured into the same case molds at 2,500 degrees. The sand case molds are made of sand, clay and water.
“There is a steel impression tooling much like PlayDoh,” Kelly said. “It’s much like that. The tool creates an impression from the front block and as it goes up it creates an impression on another block and the metal is poured in again at 2,500 degrees.
“It does down a conveyor belt and after a couple hundred feet, it drops about six inches in that sand castle and the mold breaks open and from there on out the process is clean. Then it’s on to seasoning and packing.
“It’s about a 2 ½ hour process from the minute the iron is poured into the mold to completion and seasoning. It is then shipped to 3,000 dealers in the states and to distributors in over 80 countries.”
More Than a Century of Success
Lodge Cast Iron has had its share of hard times, but that family-values ethic always seemed to pull the company through. The initial foundry burned down in 1910, but just three months later and a few blocks south, the company was up and running again.
During the Great Depression days of the 1930s, the Lodge family found ways to keep employees working by manufacturing novelty items such as doorstops in the shape of animals and garden gnomes. Other employees were kept on doing maintenance work. Cookware wasn’t selling during those tough times, but the Lodge family kept the furnaces burning and the paychecks issued.
As the economy rebounded, in 1950 Lodge converted its foundry from a hand-poured operation to an automated molding process to keep up with rising demand for its products. In 1992, Lodge Cast Iron replaced its coal-fired cupola furnaces with an electro-magnetic induction melting system.
Lodge continued to expand in 2014 and has since added a third, modern foundry and distribution center.
“Williams Sonoma has been a big dealer of ours for years, and we’ve been fortunate because American manufacturing is highly revered around the world,” Kelly said. “Our business in China is growing primarily because the rich in China don’t buy anything made in China. They know quality and they want American-made.”
Lodge Cast Iron currently employs 480 people and continues to grow.
“When I got here 14 years ago, we had 185 employees,” Kelly said. “Even with all the growth we have to work to maintain the family atmosphere all the time. It wouldn’t have happened in Chattanooga because of the cost of operating. But you know, we are in a town of 3,000 people, and the community really connects with us.”