Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bob's Red Mill: My New Heroes are Bob and Charlee Moore

The store sells every single product Bob's Red Mill produces, and it houses a restaurant that serves many of their products, including gluten-free mixes and baked goods. (The restaurant is not GF certified.)

In the past, whenever I heard the name Bob's Red Mill, I thought of grain products packed in little plastic pouches, a red barn, and paintings of a bearded man who looked a bit like Santa Clause. I knew that Bob's Red Mill was like a grain sanctuary, and that they sold gluten-free grains and mixes as well as many other products. I knew that lovers of Bob's whole grains spanned the U.S., but I didn't know that demands for Bob's quality products come from around the globe, and that their labels are written in other languages, including Arabic.

I certainly didn't know anything about Bob Moore and his amazing wife Charlee, or their story of overcoming tragedy, or their devotion to humanitarianism. On our way to tour Bob's Red Mill, I had it in mind that I would write an article about the Whole Grain Store and the Mill itself, but that changed when I learned about these two pioneers of industry.

Bob surprised us with a visit at the end of our tour. I swear the man just appeared. It was almost like seeing Santa Clause in person. I was star struck, but I think I hid it well. It turns out, I wasn't the only one.

It was a dreary Monday morning drive to the store, and my companions and I had a burning anticipation for a whole grain breakfast and a cup of coffee.

I don't think any of us were prepared for what we saw when we walked through the sliding front doors. Shelves stocked with every Bob's Red Mill product you can think of fanned out across the front of the building. In the back right corner of the building, wooden tables dotted the space. A loft space up above ran almost the entire periphery of the building, and people sat and ate their breakfasts while looking down upon the bustling store. Seriously friends. If you've never been to the Whole Grain Store, you really should go. It's like going back in time, yet modern-day conveniences provide you with creature comforts. And some (but not all) of Bob's products cost a lot less at this store than they do at other grocers, such as Fred Meyer, Whole Foods, and New Seasons.

We ordered breakfast at a counter in the back of Bob's Whole Grain Store, took a number, went to our table, and sipped coffee in anticipation. I ordered the "wheat-free," vegan pancakes--made from the gluten-free pancake mix--and a slice of turkey ham. (The pancake mix is made in Bob's dedicated gluten-free facility, but the restaurant is not certified, so they have to call all their gluten-free products "wheat-free" in the restaurant.) My pancakes were cakey, a little dense, and delicious. They endlessly drank maple syrup like sponges, but they never seemed dry. The turkey ham was good, but the pancakes trumped the ham so I gave it to my neighbor.

Everyone else at the table ordered Bob's Favorite Breakfast: two eggs any style, corn grits, and biscuits. I thought it was weird that everyone ordered the same thing, because the restaurant menu is huge, and it offers a gluten-free and a vegan menu. Plus they had a specials board. Some of my companions ordered cereal and Belgian waffles to go with their meals. They said the waffles were a little chewy, but they said nothing about the cereal, which probably meant it was good. Everyone confirmed that the biscuits (shown above) were more like whole wheat rolls than flakey biscuits, but they said they were good. Judging from what I saw, my order was the better choice.

The dedicated gluten-free mill. 

Arriving at the mill a few minutes late, and stuffed, we were just in time to hear Kristie, our tour guide, explain how Bob recently willed his entire company to his employees. That certainly got my attention. According to Kristie, every employee is eligible to received a gifted share of company profits. It's entirely voluntary. (Who wouldn't volunteer to receive extra income?) Starting this march, they will begin collecting a share of the profits as partial owners. This happens once a year until they either quit or retire from Bob's. Employees have to sell their shares back to the company when they leave Bob's Red Mill.

Kristie then held up a book titled, "People Before Profit." In it, Bob's business (and probably his life-) philosophy are illuminated, a philosophy he and his wife, Charlee, both seem to agree on. I haven't read the book, but I got the impression that it was about using company profits to create a thriving community, starting with employees, and branching out into the local, and perhaps extended, communities to enrich the lives of others. 

Kristie wore a twinkling expression of love an admiration when she spoke about Bob. It was a thought provoking look. I have never once admired nor loved one of my employers, although I've liked one or two. I certainly haven't loved an employer with my heart like Kristie does. I was beginning to think Bob really was Santa Clause.
(I regret not getting a picture of Kristie. Sorry folks.)

The history of Bob's Red Mill goes back to the '60s. Bob, whose DNA is practically fortified with a family line of grain milling, became passionate about milling stones and their reputation for producing quality grain products. He opened his first mill in California with his wife, Charlee. That worked out for a while, but good ol' Oregon was the ultimate destination for Bob's mill.

A picture of Bob sharpening a Mill Stone. Informative pictures like this one decked the walls of the area dedicated to the tour. 

In 1978, Bob bought an old mill in Oregon City, and for years he milled the grain while Charlee ran the store (in pictures, it looked like a quaint Amish store) and did the bookkeeping. People came from miles around to buy Bob's quality grains, until 1988, when the mill burned down in a fire. At 63, Bob had to rebuild their entire operation from scratch. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the new Bob's Red Mill was erected in Milwaukie, OR ten years later. And today the company continues to expand at an approximated 24% annual rate.

Bob posing with the restaurant teams of Park Kitchen and Bent Brick. I tagged along on behalf of Eating Friendly. 

The thing is, I can tell you how clean both the gluten-free and main facilities are. I can tell you that the corn they process is non-GMO, organic, grade-A corn sourced from only two farms in the entire U.S. I can tell you that all their products are superior quality. I can tell you that stone milling keeps the temperature of the grain cool enough for it to retain its vital nutrients. (Anything above a certain temperature (approx. 110 degrees) can chemically alter the grain.) I can tell you that they store their grains in two-ton, one-use bags that have handy ties at the bottom, which allow them to funnel their products into smaller bags at appropriate production times. I can tell you that their process time--from receiving, to processing, to shipping grain products--is about three weeks, which means fresh. I can tell you that they process and sell other products, such as beans and seeds (including chia and flax). I can tell you that they test all their gluten-free grains at regular intervals to provide safe, quality ingredients to sensitive eaters. I can tell you that they have an on-sight kitchen that conducts regular product testing, and that the staff really enjoys participating in quality control, and that the successful recipes make it into a cookbook that is sold at the Whole Grain Store.

But I want to tell you that, in the middle of Bob's mill, next to the break room, sit two upright pianos. Sheet music rests on the lip of each piano. Both instruments are in tune. Kristie told us Bob had been playing when the first of the tour group arrived, and we had just missed it. Apparently Bob has regular play-offs with one of the staff members named Nancy. The pianos are available to anyone who wishes to play during break. I can tell you that Bob seemed like a nice man with a healthy dose of patience. He comes to the mill and the Whole Grain Store just to meet his customers.

I also want to tell you that Bob's sends clean, left-over grains to a shelter that provides homeless people with baked goods. Their two-ton, one-use bags are sold to farmers and similar business owners that need bags for grain storage. According to Kristie, "nothing is wasted" at Bob's Red Mill.

I came away from the tour thinking about Bob and his wife Charlee, two people who followed one man's passion, who opened and ran a humble grain mill and store together, who raised a family on top of all that, who persevered and started over late in life, and who have built a little world of their own in Milwaukie, OR, which behaves like a living time capsule. These two people have touched the lives of many, and they continue to change lives for the better every single day they are alive. I am glad I got to see that the 1% includes goodhearted people like Bob and Charlee Moore.


Find a list of Gluten-free products produced by Bob's Red Mill.

Bob's famous packaging: the four bag box that holds the products upright.

The Gluten-Free Corn Stone Miller. It can detect when a corn grain is too big for packaging. That grain gets picked up and cycled back into the pile with larger kernels. The hulls are collected and sold to farmers for animal feed.

A Stone Mill Wheel. Bob usually sources them from Denmark. He said he has about 100 in use on-site.

An old Stone Mill. You can see the wheels at the bottom. Bob said the wheels never touch, or at least, they're not supposed to. When they do, it ruins the grain. If you're wondering if Bob's wheels have ever touched, the answer is yes, once. He looked regretful but wise from the experience.

These one-use storage bags can hold up to two tons. As you can see here, that's a lot of grain.

Bob had a small collection of old-fashioned mills on the tour.

This is what it looks like today.

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