We Asked THE Bob of Bob’s Red Mill How Whole Grains Became His Whole Life

updated Oct 25, 2019
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Credit: Products and Headshot: Courtesy of Bob's Red Mill; Photos of Oatmeal & Flour: Shutterstock

Unlike Quaker Oats (which is not run by a Quaker) or King Arthur Flour (which is not run by King Arthur), Bob’s Red Mill just so happens to be run by a man who is, in fact, named Bob.

In the four decades since Bob and his wife, Charlee, purchased an abandoned mill back in 1978, Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods has become one of the largest whole-grain food companies in the country. (That tidbit won’t surprise you if you’ve ever tasted their Old Country Style Muesli, Pan-Baked Granolas, or simply whipped something up with their baking mixes.) Their products are like household staples you didn’t know you needed until you try them.

Of course, the company’s ascent was not without some twists and turns, including a fire that burnt the original red mill to ashes. We recently got a chance to hop on a call with 90-year-old Bob (whose white-bearded face is printed on every package) to find out how whole grains became his whole life.

First, can you walk me through how a typical day starts for you?

I work out three days a week with a trainer: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Before I go to bed, though, I lay out very natural peanut butter on a knife (no hydrogenated oils), a banana, and a piece of Dave’s Killer Bread. His 21-Grain Bread really gets me out of bed. I get up at quarter to six, get my gym clothes on, go into the kitchen, toast the bread, and put the peanut butter on as thick as I can get it so it runs down my fingers and my arm. I eat that and I eat the banana.

Gasp. You don’t eat anything from Bob’s Red Mill for breakfast?

Oh I do. After I shower, put my clothes on, and come down to work, I have one of our oat cups. We have a variety of them and I’ll try different ones. I’ll have that with hot water ready and it really makes the morning for me. It’s very calming. Before this was part of my routine, I was talking to my assistant Nancy and I said, You know, I don’t think I have the energy to do this. But you learn things about yourself. As soon as I started having breakfast and working out, it made a big difference.

One day a week we have a staff meeting. There are 30 to 40 of us who run the company and we meet to review the last week. Everyone says a success and a failure. Then Thursday we have an executive staff meeting in my office that revolves around eating whole grains. We bring up one of our latest granolas, or oldest cereals, or steel-cut oats. Everyone has a generous share of it with vegetables, fruit, bananas, nuts, flaxseed. It’s a whole meal of things that are good for us. We all start our day that way in the company.

I’m feeling inspired. Speaking of inspiration, what (or who) inspired you to start Bob’s Red Mill?

After I got out of the service (I was in the army for three years), I went to school and started working nights at US Electrical Motors. During that time, I met a fellow who worked for the company and she had the unusual name of Charlee. They called her Chuck. Did you ever know a lady named Chuck? Well, I did, and I married her. That started our 66 years together — three boys, a nice life. I lost her just a year ago and I miss her terribly. Life is dying and dying is life. She’s so instrumental in why I’m doing what I’m doing, so if you want to tell it the way it is, you’re going to have to include her. She was so conscientious, intelligent, and wonderful for me. She steered our life and this business of good food by teaching me what good food is.

That’s beautiful. What were some of those lessons?

Her grandmother sent us a whole library of books on health that I still have on my shelf here — I’m looking at them. They depicted a whole different story about health and eating that people weren’t used to at the time, like whole grains, natural foods, organic, etc. My wife asked me to read some of these things and it got me started. She was concerned about how to raise our boys. We wanted them to be healthy and wanted to know we were doing it right, and this started us on the path to whole-grain foods.

Credit: Bob's Red Mill

Sounds like you did it right then.

You know, if you’re going to eat wheat, or rye, or barley, you’re going to have to grind it. Most of the world has this high-speed machinery that takes all the important parts out of the grain, like the bran and the germ. We got a picture of the food that we were eating and how it was degraded and devalued. So we started at home. My wife baked some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted in my life. She made five loaves a week because it was so good and wholesome. So I was converted I guess into a different way of eating.

So how did that turn into a business?

I started doing a lot of research, writing letters, and making phone calls and found a mill in Fayetteville, North Carolina, that was going to be torn down. I was able to get milling equipment like mill stones and grain cleaning machines for a really low price. I had no idea what I was doing but I bought stuff from people who did know what they were doing. I brought it to California, opened up a business in a building, and found that the public was beating a path to our door.

And what happened then?

The kids grew up and helped us get this thing going. We started making cornmeal, and whole-wheat flour, and all these lovely things. People really need a variety of things, and I see the entire category of grains very valuable to the health of children, adults, and old people — I guess they’re adults too. Then from there, you have allergies, like gluten intolerance, and Celiac. We are well able to handle them here.

So you were ahead of the whole-grain curve. And then hit it right when it was reaching its stride?

Yes, and then out of the woodwork comes the media hammering away about everything that’s the matter with processed food. So it was a whole bunch of forces that were working together. There was a general feeling on people’s hearts that they weren’t eating the way that they needed, and that’s where we came in.

What was your biggest challenge throughout all of this?

I’ve had the privilege of going broke twice in my life. The first time was at the gas station we owned in the high sierras before we started Bob’s Red Mill. I had never known what it was like to be broke before and we had to leave to head to Sacramento so I could find a different job with our tail between our legs. We moved out to a five-acre dairy goat farm which worked its way into our life. That was about the time that Charlee’s grandmother sent us all those books.

The second time we went broke was when the red mill was burnt down in 1988. Essentially, we had a fire at the first “red mill” we had in Clackamas County. We had a fire, and an old mill, and it was quite the combination. I’ve hit the bottom and I’ve seen how to come back from it.

Credit: Bob's Red Mill

That’s pretty incredible. Another very special thing about Bob’s Red Mill is that it’s 100 percent employee owned. What lead you to that decision?

I’ve spent some time with the Bible and a couple of statements in there have moved me to change the way I think about things. There’s one that says the root of all evil is the love of money. If there’s any pressure I see in the world or felt in myself, it’s this intense pressure to see how much money we make and how many dollars we can have in our pockets when we die — even though we can’t take it with us.

And then there’s also the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s the opposite of the love of money, and the epitome of that is ESOP, which stands for an “Employee Stock Ownership Plan.” And you know what? It seems like when I did these things that I believed in, the better the business did. So I guess for whatever it’s worth, I tried it and it worked.

What’s next for Bob’s Red Mill?

First I’d like to add that a few years ago my assistant Nancy and I went to Scotland and took our oats with us. We won “The Golden Spurtle,” which says to the world that we have the best porridge in the world. We’re happy to take credit for it — it’s a wonderful blessing wherever we go.

Second, I get excited real easy when I go to trade shows and we set all the new things up. Most recently, the exciting thing has been our snack bars. We’re putting them in grocery stores all over the world. I’m very pleased of the sales of them and nutritional value and unique health virtues of them. We’re also coming out with just-add-water pancake mix. It’ll be out there in not too long. And the new pan-baked granolas are just delightful.

What advice do you give to other food entrepreneurs who are just coming up?

I’d first ask them what kind of business that they want. Starting something means you have given much time and thought to the product you want to create. I spent many days and hours looking and watching others who were reasonably successful, visiting every venue possible that marked its products or services similar to mine. Trade shows were also very helpful and important to give me focus and direction. I met so many people at those shows who helped to drive my business to success and now I’m 90 and still active. You’ve got to do a lot.

Thanks so much, Bob! Follow Bob’s Red Mill on Instagram, and check out their website for more information.