I have sometimes wondered who shows up to take a free, 90-minute factory tour of Bob’s Red Mill in Milwaukie, Oregon. On a recent Tuesday morning, I found out: two visitors from Pennsylvania, two from Arizona, one from Hawaii, and nine local Portlanders, including two babies and me.
The 160,000 square foot distribution warehouse is just a few miles south of Portland. But even if you live in another state – or another country – chances are good you’ve seen Bob’s Red Mill products on the shelf of your local store. Bob’s sells to all the major U.S. and Canada chains, and is in 83 foreign markets. The company claims to manufacture the most different grain products of any mill in the world.
Since my friend was visiting from Hawaii – and she’d taken me on the Mauna Loa macadamia nut tour when I visited her – I decided the day for the mill tour had finally come. We rounded up my other friend who’s game for anything, and drove down to Milwaukie. All three of us are long-time vegetarians, so this might make us more interested in grains than your average person.
The tour starts with a 12-minute video that includes an old commercial and footage from grains being tested in the company lab. My favorite part was the machine called a farinograph, which measures the properties of flour. Google later confirmed that this is a real machine.
Our tour guide, Christie Coykendall, has worked at the mill for seven years. She enthusiastically educated us about grains and mills. We learned the difference between steel cut oats (oat groats cut into three pieces), rolled oats (groats flattened) and Scottish oats – (groats ground to a raggedy texture). She described the three cooking methods for whole grains: porridge, pasta or pilaf.
We gazed through windows onto the factory floor, where forklifts hauled enormous white bags that carry a ton of grain. These were maneuvered to combine into 8,000 pound recipes for cookie and pancake mixes.
We also learned about millstones. I was a little disappointed to learn they’re inside the machines, so not visible unless the machine is dismantled. Bob’s Red Mill uses quartz millstones, a milling tradition since Roman times. Some of the company’s stones are 100 years old and come from a quarry outside of Paris. About once a year, stones are sharpened with a diamond tip grinder. In milling parlance, this is called “giving the stone a lively edge.”
We also saw lots of old machinery and a collection of pictures depicting the mill’s history.
Bob’s Story – and Bob Stories
Bob Moore is the beloved face of the company, and Coykendall told us many stories about him. If the millstones run short of grain and start to grind together, Bob can smell them burning from a block away. Once, when he was served oatmeal in Preston, Scotland, he was so impressed with the texture that he went to the mill and took a rubbing of the stones so he could replicate them at his home mill.
But it was really his wife Charlee who first got interested in whole grains. Back in the 1950s, she was a young wife and mother to three boys. It was a time of TV dinners and the popular “better living through chemistry” message. But Charlee’s values harkened back to the simple living of her grandmother. She wanted to serve her family wholesome, natural foods.
Bob was a machine guy. He loved to take things apart, to fix and build. And so their interests intersected around milling.
At the time, they lived in Redding, California. Bob located a flour mill with old millstones for sale for 300 dollars in South Carolina. It cost him $3,000 for shipping. Fortunately, he took to milling and has since recouped the shipping fee. He opened Moore’s Flour Mill in Redding, which his two sons still operate.
Bob and Charlee moved to Oregon in 1977 so that Bob could attend seminary. But he missed milling. Soon he was in business again. He built a small retail business. In 1988, an arsonist destroyed his mill. He rebuilt in a big way, starting the wholesale operation that thrives today.
A few years back, on Bob’s 81st birthday, he gave the company to his employees. The company developed an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). Only active, working employees can own stock. When they retire, they have to sell. “That’s their pension,” Coykendall explained. Bob didn’t want the company to ever be bought by a larger enterprise that would compromise on quality, she said. “We’re very proud and very grateful.”
The gluten-free craze has propelled Bob’s Red Mill products into a lot of people’s shopping carts. Two of the women on our tour – the one from Pennsylvania and the one from Arizona – both had Celiac Disease. Our guide was also unable to digest gluten.
The Moores got into the gluten-free market very early and entirely by accident. A group of gluten-intolerant people from Seattle approached Bob in the 1980s about their needs. Bob began experimenting and now, three decades later, the company has a gluten-free building and four dedicated packaging lines. And many, many more customers following gluten-free diets. The whole plant is also kosher and GMO-free.
Meet Your Grains
My favorite part of the tour was the tactile part, where visitors can play with bowls of uncooked grains. Ever fondled farro? Tickled triticale? This is your chance.
We touch-tested various grains while Coykendall gave us cooking and nutrient advice. Some of their grains come from as close as Idaho. The oats, barley and rye hail from Canada, while chia, amaranth and quinoa grow in Latin America. I learned that amaranth is tiny and soft, and kamut resembles giant grains of rice. Triticale, amaranth, quinoa and teff are the grains with the highest quality proteins.
At the end of the tour, nobody left empty-handed. We all got samples of Scottish oats, granola and muesli. If we were still hungry for grains, we could drive a mile up the road to the big Bob’s Red Mill retail store and choose from packaged or bulk grains, baked goods or order off the lunch menu in their café.
My friends and I saw some of our tour mates at the store. Which just goes to show, some folks can take a 90-minute tour about grains and still want more. – Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor