Legend has it that in 1907 President Teddy Roosevelt visited Maxwell House, the prestigious Nashville hotel and after finishing a cup of their namesake coffee, he declared it was, "good to the last drop." At least that is what Maxwell House Coffee Company advertised in 1920. While legends are romantic they are rarely accurate. Teddy Roosevelt did indeed visit the hotel and probably did have a cup of coffee but there is no evidence that he ever uttered those words. Still, legends are romantic and this one sure sold a lot of coffee.
The story of Maxwell House Coffee begins in rural Kentucky in 1873 when Joel Cheek, a traveling salesman for a wholesale grocery firm was asked by a customer what the best coffee that he sold was. In rural areas in the 1870's people bought their coffee green and roasted it at home. He naturally recommended the most expensive one, though he knew nothing about the differing qualities of coffee.
Whether bothered by his conscience or simply out of curiosity, that night he roasted some of each type of coffee that he sold and sampled them side by side. He decided that actually one of the cheaper brands had the best flavor. The next day he returned to the grocer that had asked him the question and explained why he would be shipping him the cheaper brand.
Continuing to experiment with different varieties of coffee, Cheek became quite the aficionado, recognizing that some brands had better body and some better acidity and yet another better flavor and aroma. He began mixing different coffees together to find just the right blend.
Many years passed before he would move to Nashville in 1884 and meet Roger Nolley Smith, a British coffee broker who could reportedly tell the origin of a coffee simply by smelling the green beans. The two became fast friends bound by their passion for coffee. This friendship would be the beginning of Maxwell House Coffee though it would be several more years before either of them knew it.
Over the next few years the two worked on finding the perfect blend and in 1892 Cheek believed they had found it. He approached the food buyer for the Maxwell House and gave him twenty pounds of his special blend for free. After a few days the coffee was gone and the hotel returned to its usual brand. After hearing of complaints from patrons, who liked Cheeks coffee better, the hotel bought Cheeks blend exclusively.
Inspired by his success Cheek quit his job and formed a wholesale grocery distributor with partner John Neal, The Nashville Coffee and Manufacturing Company, specializing in coffee with Maxwell House Coffee, as it came to be known, as the central brand.
Later the Nashville Coffee and Manufacturing Company was renamed the Cheek-Neal Coffee Company. Over the next several years the Maxwell House Coffee brand became a well respected name noted for its high-brow snob appeal that set it apart from the competition.
Like most coffee companies, the Cheek-Neal Coffee Company marketed many lower-grade brands of coffee keeping Maxwell House Coffee as its flagship. In 1910 the company was fined for adulteration and misbranding' of one of its lower grade coffees containing 10 percent chicory. There was a strip label across the lid indicating the use of chicory but the print was tiny and the main label read big and bold "Cheek & Neal Cup Quality Coffee."
The legal mess that resulted had little effect on the company or the reputation of Maxwell House Coffee and by the 1920's Maxwell House was a household name. In 1928 General Foods bought Maxwell House Coffee. Hope you enjoyed this little tidbit of Maxwell House Coffee History.