We’ve been planning and working on #JourneyxJourney for months. Routes, hotels, interviews, insurance, car washes, filming releases, a thousand things that are necessary to make sure this trip is as amazing as it has the potential to be. Now the trip is happening, and I’ve been following Meagan and Emily as they’ve hit the road, meeting incredible people and telling incredible stories. The pace they and the whole crew is keeping is incredible, and I wanted just a little taste of it. A few days of the Journey (pun somewhat intended) to make the months of work…real.

I decided to fly in and join the team in Springfield, Missouri. Why Springfield? Well, for a couple reasons. First, it fit into the rest of my work schedule. Second, Springfield has an airport! I could get in there without too much disruption to the team on the road. Third, because I’ve never actually visited a bottler. I work in the corporate HQ in Atlanta, and I spend all my time focused on the day to day social and digital work, so I have never experienced a bottling line, the actual hard work done every day by tens of thousands of people across America – and even more globally.

So, Springfield it is! I arrived at the Ozarks Coca-Cola Bottling Company just a few minutes after the full JXJ team arrived. There, we met with Rachel, our host for the day. She showed us around, introduced us to everyone – and, seriously, this was one of the nicest group of people I’ve ever met. Every single person went out of their way to make us feel welcome despite the fact that we were the ones intruding on their space and Friday workday.

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Production Manager Jim Peterson shows the JXJ family around the facility.

We quickly got to work and were given a tour of the production facility by Jim, the production manager. If you’ve never been inside a bottling plant, you’re missing out. You almost don’t know where to look. There were mountains of empty bottles, ready to be filled, rows and rows and rows of completed packages, waiting to be shipped out to stores. Then there’s the actual production line. It moves so fast and with such efficiency, bottles moving quickly down conveyer belts, up to the area where they’re filled, into the room where they’re capped, then onto the labeling area. It’s so efficient and so mesmerizing that you could easily spend hours watching the same part of the process over and over. At the same time, there are people driving forklifts right and left, moving giant pallets of Coca-Cola products around.

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Edwin “Cookie” Rice takes the JXJ team through the history of the Ozarks Coca-Cola Bottling Company.

I reluctantly left the production part of the building to move into the offices, but if I’d known what was waiting for me, I would have run forward.  Inside, we met Edwin “Cookie” Rice, the CEO of the Ozarks Coca-Cola Bottling Company.  He was, in one word, fantastic. The Ozarks Coca-Cola Bottling Company is a family business, and he’s the patriarch. His father bought the company in 1920, and the Cook family has owned it and run it ever since. Mr. Rice himself began working at the plant when he was only 14 years old, working on the loading docks because you had to be 18 to work inside the facility. His office walls are loaded with incredible photos and memorabilia attesting to a life dedicated to family and Coca-Cola. From the photo of young Edwin Rice driving a convertible with two young movie stars named Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis in the back past President Harry Truman to a bottle commemorating the first ‘New Coke’ to be packaged in the Springfield plant to a photo of his dad from decades ago as he helped bottle Coca-Cola, it’s clear that Mr. Rice has led a rich and wonderful life surrounded by his family business and the employees he also considers family.

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A young Edwin Rice drives movie stars Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis past President Harry Truman

Every person we talked to at the plant mentioned the love they have for their jobs and the love they particularly have for the Rice family. It’s not unusual for people to retire from the Ozarks Coca-Cola Bottling Company after 45 years or more.

This is a theme we’re seeing develop as we travel across the country, particularly when we arrive at the local bottlers. They all serve such a huge, important role in their towns… as employers, as philanthropists, as leaders. I was already proud to work for a company like Coca-Cola, but knowing the impact these bottlers have makes me swell up even more. Yes, we’re a soda company. But we also do a lot of good in the world – and much of it starts in places like Springfield, Missouri with people like Mr. Rice. They support and inspire those around them, building an entire community of people who do the same.

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Bottle commemorating Ozarks Coca-Cola Bottling Company’s first run of “New Coke.”

Mr. Rice is now 85, says he sees himself now as a cheerleader instead of a businessman. He’s handed off most of the day-to-day work to his daughters and other family who now manage the business. But that’s not to say he isn’t still entirely plugged in. Mr. Rice is a Coca-Cola man through and through – and it’s because of people like him that this company will continue to be a positive force throughout the world.