Maxwell House coffee was developed by Joel Cheek and his partner Roger Nolley Smith in the late 1800’s and first served in a fancy Nashville hotel in 1902. That hotel was named the Maxwell House. Cheek approached the food buyer for the hotel, Mr. Bledwell, and asked him to try out 20 pounds of the coffee, a blend of coffees chosen for flavor and balance, on a trial basis.
The hotel served the coffee to their guests, ran out, and went back to their regular coffee. After receiving numerous customer complaints about the drop in coffee quality, Mr. Bledwell was informed by the chef that Cheek’s coffee was just better coffee than their regular beans, so the hotel bought the new coffee from Cheek from then on, and allowed him to use their name for the coffee after a six-month trial.
The rest of the Maxwell House story is history, as they say, and you can read more about it in Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, by Mark Pendergrast.
Good to the Last Drop
The subject of this post is a peculiar association of Maxwell House with Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Remember the Maxwell House slogan, Good to the Last Drop? Of course, you do, who could forget? Well, it is often claimed that Teddy Roosevelt, in 1907, coined the slogan after the coffee was served to him at the Hermitage, a famous Nashville resort that was originally Andrew Jackson’s home.
Pendergrast, in his book, doubts that Roosevelt ever said those words. However, the company itself claimed differently in advertisements such as this one, below, from the 1920’s:
Teddy Roosevelt Gave Popular Slogan To Maxwell House Coffee
Theodore Roosevelt, while president of the United States, and touring the South, made a stop at Nashville, Tennessee, where he was, of course, received with glad acclaim. he was then served with Maxwell House coffee. Taking a second cup, and drinking it all, he good humoredly and in his characteristic style exclaimed, “Good to the last drop.” The saying stuck. It was indeed too good to pass. The slogan was adopted, “Good to the last drop,” right on the spot. It has been heralded practically around the world. Maxwell House coffee is used far and wide, and those who once enjoy a cup readily and heartily agree with Theodore Roosevelt—”Good to the last drop.”
Maxwell House coffee is the largest selling brand of high grade coffee in the world. It is to be found at leading hotels. Wherever introduced, it meets with rapidly increased sales, because of its genuine high quality.
The Cheek-Neal coffee Company, of Houston Texas, marketers of Maxwell House Coffee, are among the leading concerns of the South, as to progressiveness, substantiability, and aggressiveness. As an attest of their splendid enterprise, Maxwell House coffee, “Good the last drop,” is now to be found at the leading hotels of New York and throughout the East, as they are opening up that territory. Southern folks will be pleased to learn this, and to know their favorite coffee can be found wherever they travel.
Other stories add a bit more detail. One story has it that the president was asked if he wanted another cup, to which he answered, “Will I have another? Delighted! It’s good to the last drop.” The earliest company mention of the Teddy Roosevelt connection that I could find was 1921. As above, the incident was supposed to have happened in 1907. I am not sure how early these types of advertisements may have been used and some sources claim that “many years passed” between the company’s creation of the slogan and its subsequent claims concerning Roosevelt. I have been unable to substantiate this claimed gap. As it stands, there is no way to tell the veracity of the story.
The coffee company was originally called the Nashville Coffee and Manufacturing Company and became the Cheek-Neal Coffee Co. in 1901. It was purchased in 1928 by the Postum Cereal Company, which later acquired the General Foods Company (started by Clarence Birdeye), which subsequently became the name for the Postum company. General Foods introduced Maxwell House instant coffee just after World War II.
In 1990, before General Foods had officially become Kraft Foods, Maxwell House was the subject of one of the biggest branding mistakes ever. Okay, maybe not ever, but it was a pretty big booboo. The company launched Maxwell House ready-to-drink coffee, which was merchandized in the refrigerated section of grocery stores. According to the label, the coffee was brewed with crystal clear water and the fresh brewed flavor and aroma are locked in this exclusive foil-lined fresh-pack. Can you see the problem? Either you take the coffee of the pack to heat it, or you drink it cold. You couldn’t put it in the microwave because of the foil-lined pack. So the ready-to-drink coffee was cold coffee. Nobody wanted it. Ironically, there are successful brands of bottled ready-to-drink coffee which are sold as iced coffee, complete with cream and other added ingredients. This is why I said that it was a branding mistake rather than a complete and utter mistake.
General foods did have some good ideas, however. They successfully introduced Maxwell House into France, who are quite picky, and snobby, about their coffee. General Foods, learning of the French preference for darker stronger tasting brews, developed a darker roast product specifically for the French market. Initial marketing was not really successful, although consumers supposedly liked the coffee. But then a U.S creative director for the company said, “Maxwell House is so strong that a spoon can stand up in the cup.” and this apparently made sense to the French, making a success out of the brand. Print and television ads were released showing a spoon standing up in a cup of Maxwell House coffee. The guy that came up with that must have been in the Navy. It strikes me that Americans would associate that with an over-brewed and over-strong coffee, rather and a pleasing dark roast. Maxwell House, under Phillip Morris, was also the first company to come out with ready-to-use filter packs for drip coffee makers.
General Foods was bought up by the tobacco giant Philip Morris in 1985, who had already acquired Kraft. These two were combined to form Kraft General Foods, which was shortened to Kraft Foods, Inc. in 1995. Today, Kraft Foods markets many different Maxwell House products, including the original roast (the blend of which has probably changed many times) and still uses the same blue can (now a canister), the same old image of the tipped cup with drops coming from it, and of course, the same slogan, “Good to the last drop.”
The earliest containers, the precise shade of blue, and the design of the can, including the size of the logo and the color of the letters, has changed many times over the years.
Proctor & Gamble, the marketers of Folgers coffee, sued Kraft Foods in 2007, alleging that the new Maxwell House containers had infringed on their design patents for Folgers plastic AromaSeal containers, which had a flexible cap, a handle, and concave bottom.
Although I grew up drinking both Folgers and Maxwell House coffees, I was never a fan of the Maxwell House. I did not think it was good to the last drop at all. If I could describe the taste, I always said it tasted gluey, like decoction of Elmer’s (don’t ask!). I preferred Folgers. I am very familiar with the old Maxwell House, but the newer products and flavors, I have never really tasted. Maybe they are better to the last drop than the original.
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