2016-01-20 / News

Stuck on you

Gum factory memories stick with former employees
By Rich Griset

Clark’s Teaberry Gum, once manufactured in Richmond, can still be found at local Cracker Barrel restaurants. But supplies are running out. 
Jeff Bland/Chesterfield Observer Clark’s Teaberry Gum, once manufactured in Richmond, can still be found at local Cracker Barrel restaurants. But supplies are running out. Jeff Bland/Chesterfield Observer A man in a bowler hat does a jig as he places a stick of gum in his mouth.

As a peppy Herb Alpert tune plays, the jig is repeated by a running back, a soldier of the Queen’s Guard and a woman leaving a grocery store. Those old enough to remember the commercial for Clark’s Teaberry Gum may be surprised to learn that it was manufactured on Bells Road in Richmond for a decade.

“We all learned to do ‘The Teaberry Shuffle,’” recalls former employee Shirley Gough, who lives in Midlothian. “They [released] a 45 record. I think my girlfriend still has one.”

Hired in 1963, Gough worked various jobs at the plant, including as a machine operator. Recently, Gough has made it her mission to locate as many of the factory’s roughly 170 former employees as possible, holding reunions every six months. The next one is slated for May.

Clark’s Teaberry Gum dates back to 1900, when the D.L. Clark Co. of Pittsburgh purchased the patent from Charles Burke. The company specialized in candy, creating the Clark Bar and the Zagnut among others.

Looking to diversify its product line, Philip Morris purchased Clark’s Teaberry Gum in 1963 and moved its production down to Richmond.

“It was fashionable for corporations to make a lot of different things back in that time,” explains Garland Pollard, editor of branding website BrandlandUSA. “The philosophy in the ’60s and ’70s was – because the economy is very unpredictable – you want to have all kinds of different products to keep revenue [flowing].”

Because Philip Morris knew how to brand and market nonessential goods, it acquired similar products like Clark’s Teaberry Gum, Miller Beer, Burma-Shave shaving cream and 7UP soda.

“They had a way of buying second [place] brands … and turning them around, which is what they did with Marlboro and Miller,” Pollard says.

With the move to Philip Morris came new packaging and the commercial featuring Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ “The Mexican Shuffle.” The song was renamed “The Teaberry Shuffle” for its appearance on the small screen.

While he has fond memories of the commercial, former Clark’s Teaberry Gum supervisor Elmore Cook disputes any claims of dancing at the workplace.

“We never did that at work,” says the 72-year-old Powhatan resident, joking that any shuffling on the job was from laziness, not from mimicking the commercial.

Cook was transferred from Philip Morris’ tobacco de-stemming division to the gum factory in 1964. As much as he enjoyed working for the company, he says there was an added bonus to working in gum: air conditioning.

“Back in the ’60s there weren’t many factories with air conditioning,” Cook says. “If you didn’t have it [at the plant], you couldn’t have chewing gum, because it would get sticky.”

As the corporate strategy of having a diverse portfolio of products gave way to manufacturing a single good at a high volume, Philip Morris sold the gum brand in 1973, and production moved to Philadelphia. Cracker Barrel still carries the gum, but a spokeswoman for the restaurant chain says the corporation has received its last shipment from the manufacturer, and it will no longer be made.

“It just flies off the shelves,” says Kirsten Lane, retail manager at the Cracker Barrel location off Hull Street Road. “It reminds [a generation] of their childhood. We can never keep it on our shelves.”

Whether Clark’s is still manufactured or not, Gough will continue to search for her former colleagues.

“We looked after each other,” says the 76-year-old. “It was like a big family.”

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