Building on the success of its syrup, Montgomery’s Whitfield Foods company has stuck with its guiding principles to enjoy prosperity for more than a century.
Joe Friday was quick to reveal the secret to Whitfield Foods’ 114 years in business: “Hard work. You don’t stay in business this long if you don’t have a great work ethic,” said Friday, who began serving as president and CEO of the company in 2019 after 18 years as plant manager. The company has also pivoted when needed, including moving from family management to professional management about 20 years ago.
“It started with syrup,” Friday explained. Founded in 1906 as the Alabama-Georgia Syrup Company, the company was one of the first syrup producers in the United States to can syrups for distribution throughout the country. The name for its product — Alaga — was derived from the abbreviations of Alabama and Georgia, in honor of the marriage of Georgia-born founder Louis Broughton Whitfield Sr. and his Alabama bride Willie Vandiver Whitfield. The logo design of two hands clasped in front of a bundle of cane sugar stalks also honors this marriage and was designed by the founder’s wife. This design is still in use, though it’s been adjusted over the years.
The first major change occurred in the 1920s when the company diversified into pickles. “That’s what a lot of older Montgomerians remember about Whitfield Foods – Whitfield Pickles,” Friday said. During that era, the company bought cucumbers from farmers across Central Alabama and the Wiregrass, then placed them in large barrels with water and salt. “Over time, that cucumber would become a pickle,” Friday said. The pickles were then canned, bottled and labeled for store shelves.
Pickle-making was not a quick process. “It’d be weeks and weeks before you get a pickle when you put it in that brine solution,” Friday explained. The timeframe became particularly cumbersome during the late 1970s when high interest rates made the financial side harder to manage. “They made a business decision that they needed to change their model,” Friday said. Whitfield Foods began bottling juices and juice drinks for Ocean Spray in 1979 and shortly thereafter, sold the pickle business to Atkins Pickle Company, a division of Dean Foods. The company served Ocean Spray for 20 years, and in the meantime, began bottling products for Pepsi-Co. in 1998 and continues to do so.
The company is currently concentrated on contract manufacturing. “We’re making brewed tea, sports drinks, 100-percent juices and juice beverages,” Friday said. The beverages are bottled, capped, cooled, labeled, packed into trays, then palletized, before being loaded into trucks for delivery to various distribution centers. “We send out millions of bottles a year.” The plant is located on 27 acres in North Montgomery in facilities that have grown over the years as adjacent property was purchased. The company has 110 full-time employees and is a 24/7 operation.
Over the first 90 years or so, the family leadership of the company included Mr. Whitfield Sr. who served as president until 1929, before turning that role over to his son, L.B. Whitfield Jr., while Sr. stayed on as Chairman of the Board until he passed away in 1942. At his death in 1972, L.B. Whitfield Jr. was succeeded by sons Frank G. Whitfield Sr. and L.B. Whitfield III as president and chairman. As of 2000, both men of the third generation had died, and an era of professional management had begun.
Recently, many artifacts that represent company history, family history and cultural history have been rediscovered. “We were doing some renovations in the office building,” Friday said. “We had to clean out a coat closet.” One of the fourth-generation family members, Virginia Ann Whitfield, has been sorting through piles of unique and interesting artifacts that fill a large conference room.
“There are a lot of really cool things,” Friday said. Among them is a framed 1936 letter Mr. Whitfield Sr. wrote to his grandson describing his ride on the Hindenburg, which had taken place about six months before the airship’s devastating crash in New Jersey. There are also numerous photographs of various Whitfields with famous individuals, including photographs of L.B. Whitfield Jr., a World War II veteran, with General James Doolittle along with a signed photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald, also a friend.
Famous Alabamians Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Nat King Cole served as company spokespeople at one time or another, and their ads and photos are in the collection. There’s a 100th anniversary issue of The Montgomery Advertiser, dated in 1928, and a lot of clippings have been saved over the years. One of these features a visit by Janette Kelley, who was better known in her role as Betty Crocker.
As Whitfield Foods looks forward to the future, it will no doubt be ready to adapt as it has in years past. One thing remains unchanged: While it currently represents only a taste of its business — about 5 percent — the company is still making the original sticky sweet Alaga syrup that so many have come to love.
MBJ: March 2021