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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga Coca-Cola Bottling Co. celebrated its 123rd anniversary on Thursday.

Chattanooga Coca-Cola Bottling Co. on Thursday marked 123 years in business as sales bubble up in 2022 and the company catches a coronavirus bounce.

"Folks started going back to the brands they were loyal to," said Darren Hodges, Chattanooga division director for the company's parent, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. United.

Hodges said the company worked with key locations in the city such as Food City and Rock City to give away 123 of its products to their first patrons on Thursday. Also, Bessie Smith Cultural Center gave away free admission Thursday to all students as well as to the first 123 students who will sign up on Friday, he said.

"Chattanooga has been good to us," Hodges said in an interview. "There's value in having longevity like that."

Chattanooga became home to the first Coca-Cola bottling company in 1899 after two Chattanooga businessmen, Benjamin F. Thomas and Joseph B. Whitehead, ventured to Atlanta and purchased bottling rights from Coca-Cola owner Asa Chandler for $1.

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Chattanooga Coca-Cola marks 123 years in fizzness

Thomas and Whitehead later joined with Chattanooga colleague John T. Lupton to build the first bottling facility at 17 Market St., the current location of Patten Parkway.

Hodges said that while sales are up about 7%, the coronavirus has put a strain on the hiring of truck drivers and warehouse workers at the company that employs about 500 people at its bottling plant on Amnicola Highway and distribution center on Shepherd Road.

"The biggest challenge is manpower," he said.

The division director said the company "provides great jobs for people to build careers and brings involvement to the community."

Hodges, a Chattanooga native and 36-year veteran of Coke, said there are a couple of employees who've put in 50 years with the company.

Steve Gravett said he's retiring after 48 years — 40 as a forklift operator.

"I wanted to do this since I was 5 years old," he said in an interview.

Andrew Kidd, the bottling company's print shop manager, said in an interview that he's worked at Coke for six years, though his mother was there for 20.

"There's not a lot of companies that have been around for 123 years," he said.

Hodges said the Chattanooga operation packages 18 million cases of Coke products per year at the 300,000-square-foot Shepherd Road facility that opened in 2016. He said that automated processes have helped the warehouse and truck loading side of the business.

A byproduct of the coronavirus is that it has enabled the company to become more efficient, the official said.

"We learned how to operate differently," he said.

Moving ahead, Hodges said he expects to continue to see brand changes, noting that about half its business is in low- or no-sugar products.

While the Chattanooga company is 123 years old, Coca-Cola United was founded in 1902, making it 120 years old. Birmingham, Alabama-based Coca-Cola United bought the Chattanooga business in 1926.

According to Coca-Cola United, it's the second-largest privately held Coca-Cola bottler in North America and the third-largest bottler of Coca-Cola products in the U.S.

Coca-Cola United has about 10,000 associates in more than 50 facilities across six Southeastern states, the company said. Revenues in 2021 were about $3.4 billion, according to the company.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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