WRITTEN BY SANDRA S. SORIA • PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS JUNGBLUT
WE MEET BOB MOORE EARLY one rainy Oregon morning in a corner office lined with windows and layered with memorabilia that attests to a
full life. He is a trademark come to life wearing his driving cap, bolo, and red vest. Few people have seen him without the cap. And the bolo he’s wearing is one of about a hundred that Charlee—cofounder of Bob’s Red Mill and his wife of 65 years—has picked up for him at Portland’s Saturday Market. When he’s not wearing the red vest, he’s sporting a red blazer. “I have to wear it sometimes,” Bob says. “It makes me look like a president I guess. I have to look like I’m in charge when I show the boys how to sharpen millstones.”
Bob’s comments are often delivered deadpan, sometimes punctuated with a wink. But he’s not kidding about the millstones. As we speak, there are 24 quartz millstones—each weighing in at over a ton—grinding up grains in the seven-acre mill below his office. It’s an ancient method, but one of the secrets to this miller’s fast-rising success—and the brand’s near cult-like following among foodies, health food fans, and home bakers alike. With the help of these precisely chiseled stones, they now annually churn out a whopping 150,000,000 pounds of organic, non-GMO, whole-grain goodness.
To understand the importance of the stone mills—and why paying an upcharge for a bag of Bob’s flour is well worth your cash—a quick refresher
in whole grains is needed. Unlike the turbo-speed steel rollers used to make most flours and mixes, the millstones grind at a slower speed and cooler temperature. That way the grains remain with their three parts intact—the bran (an outer skin packed with antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber), the germ (the embryo with its protein, minerals, and healthy fats), and the endosperm (the largest part of the grain that has starchy carbs, proteins, and only a small amount of vitamins and minerals). By keeping only the endosperm, industrial steel mills can crank out refined flours about 60-times faster and yield products with a longer shelf life—but a lot less nutrition and flavor. That’s not how Bob rolls.
Bob and Charlee caught one of the first waves of whole-grain’s modern popularity in the 1960s, when they were raising their three sons in Redding, California. “Charlee decided we needed to be eating better,” he says.
But it was a book he stumbled on about that time, John Goffe’s Mill, that really started this history buff’s wheels turning. It was written in the 1940s by a guy who inherited and restored an old New Hampshire flour mill. “That book really was a huge inspiration,” he says. “I was looking for something my boys and I could do together and I thought—well, this is interesting.”
“My inspiration was so varied, but it started with three boys and a wife who was very particular about what we ate.” —BOB MOORE
After more years of research (without benefit of Google) and a long search for millstones, Bob found two 1850s stones and pieces of old wooden milling equipment in North Carolina, and had it all shipped to the other side of the country. A lifelong tinkerer who spent several years as a mechanic and service-station owner, Bob and his sons got the vintage equipment up and running in an old Quonset hut. They named their business Moore’s Flour Mill and put a few ads in the local paper hawking their fresh stone-ground flour, cornmeal, and 10-grain cereal. People ate it up.
By his 50th birthday, he and Charlee decided to sell the business to their sons (who still produce Bob’s Red Mill granola out of a Redding plant), and head north to Oregon. Devoted to religious study, their plan was to attend seminary so they could learn to read the Bible in its original languages, ancient Greek and Hebrew.
Fate had other plans for them. Out for a walk in Portland one evening, they noticed an old abandoned mill. It proved an irresistible lure. They bought it, painted it red, dubbed it Bob’s Red Mill, and in 1978 began stone-milling a variety of ancient grains, from teff to millet.
The business was whirring along until an arson fire consumed the mill in 1988, taking most everything along with it. Except for the millstones—and Bob’s commitment to his employees and passion for creating wholesome food. “I was thinking of retiring after that happened,” he says, “but I stayed with the business to help my employees. One had just put money down on his first house. I couldn’t leave them without jobs.”
He was 60 at the time. Now, a whisker away from age 90, Bob has no plans to retire. He is one spry testimony to the power of whole grains. (He kicks off his day with his favorite thick-cut rolled or steel-cut oats.) “I get up almost seven mornings a week to come down here. Almost. This is where I live,” he says. “It’s a happy place here—I like it and we’re doing well. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for me to go wandering off.”
“Several people have worked with me for over 30 years. I’d have more but some of the people I hire are older. I don’t care how old they are, I like to have them around.” —BOB MOORE
Bob doesn’t spend a lot of that time at his desk. He likes to hang out with his engineers, talking shop. His team has designed much of the state-of-the- art milling and packaging equipment in the plant, always dreaming up better ways to move grains from field to table. And Bob knows the intricacies of every piece of equipment.
Though their business is in age-old grains and milling techniques, this is one buttoned-up operation. Bob’s goal is to exceed health, safety, and quality standards from field to factory to package. Grains are carefully sourced and meticulously cleaned. They’re tested for nutrient quality in labs that run non-stop. Grains that pass the test will cycle through to packaging in less than 24 hours, where they are tested once again before being shipped to thousands of stores from Moline to Mongolia.
Bob walks the plant—which is literally spotless and has air filtered clean of grain dust—a couple of times a day, especially at shift change when he has a better chance to chat up employees. The rumor mill has it that he knows everyone’s name, but Bob puts that to rest. “I think it’s kind of funny because people will ask ‘how can you know everybody’s names?’ Well, I have them stitched on their pockets,” he says and…there’s the wink.
“Five or six years ago he did know all their names,” chimes in his longtime assistant, Nancy Garner, “but now we have over 600 employees. Last summer we hired several hundred in just a few months.” Some of those are to staff up one of the fastest growing segments of the business—gluten-free products now account for 40 percent of sales thanks to double-digit growth over the past five years, though they’ve been producing the stuff for 30 years.
On many days, you can catch Bob and Nancy belting out old jazz standards at the side-by-side pianos in the showroom—often to the surprise of Bob’s Red Mill fans who’ve lined up to take one of the company’s daily tours. “Besides whole grains,” Bob says, “music has been one of the great stabilizers of my life.”
His employees speak of him with respect, bordering on reverence. In part, that might have to do with the fact that, on his 81 birthday, he gave two-thirds ownership of the company to them through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). It was a way of rewarding the people who helped build his successful business, and to protect them from the many big-name corporate suitors regularly looking to scoop up his company and potentially dissolve it. “The trick,” he says, “is figuring out a way to give your company to your employees, but keep it to such an extent that after you give it to them they don’t tell you ‘we’ve had enough of you—out.’ I think I perfected that.”
He’s joked that he’ll be around until Nancy comes in and finds him on the floor. But no one is counting him out for a good long time. Genes are on his side—his grandmother lived to be 106. Besides, he watches what he eats.