Bob Moore glides his hands over the grooves and furrows of a nearly 150-year-old slab of quartz and pays homage to the ancient art of flour milling—tumbling and cutting grain between two massive stones into a fine or coarse grit.
“What I grind with is no different than what the Romans used,” says Moore, 85, founder of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods in Milwaukie, Oregon.
Displayed at his company’s headquarters, the 1,000-pound millstone helped Moore grow his mom-and-pop operation into a whole-grain powerhouse that today offers 400-plus products—from stone-ground fava bean flour to farina cereal grain, and masa harina corn flour to gluten-free muesli.
Moore has spent most of his life going against the grain—exploring the all-but-lost craft of stone milling before whole-grain foods were trendy; restoring his fire-ravaged business at an age when most people think about retiring; and eventually opting to give his multimillion-dollar empire to the employees who helped him build it.
Still at the helm as the company’s president and CEO, Moore remains the driving force behind Bob’s Red Mill and is a walking billboard for the products he sells in more than 80 countries. Wearing wire-rimmed glasses and one of “50, 60, maybe 100” caps that he’s acquired over the years, the bearded Moore bears the face imprinted on every Bob’s Red Mill package. He eats whole-grain cereal most mornings (generally “Scottish oats or 10-grain”) and is known to expound upon the virtues of flaxseed meal.
“One of the healthiest foods on Earth!” he declares. “You should have a tablespoon of that every single morning of your life. I do.”
Striding through the mill’s plant, Moore stops frequently to greet workers. He knows them all by name.
As he holds freshly milled corn meal in his hand, he credits his wife, Charlee, for teaching him and their three sons how to eat healthful whole grains during the 1960s. At the time, the family lived on a rented goat farm outside Sacramento, Calif., where Charlee, now 85, raised a large garden and chickens and nurtured a desire to teach herself how to prepare natural foods. Moore mixed Charlee’s zeal for healthful eating with his passions for entrepreneurship and engineering to strike a winning formula.
A born tinkerer and frugal do-it-yourselfer, Moore worked as an electric motor trouble-shooter and a Los Angeles-area gas station operator before moving his family in 1958 to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., to run a gas station in the High Sierra. He lost their home and savings within a year when bad weather brought business to a standstill in the resort town. To recover over the next decade, Moore moved to Sacramento and sold machinery for Sears and tires for Firestone before managing a J.C. Penney auto center in Redding, California.
His life changed in Redding in the late 1960s after reading a library book called “John Goffe’s Mill,” about an archeologist who inherited and restored a crumbling gristmill. “If he could do it,” Moore thought, “so could I.”
He helped launch two of his sons in a flour milling business and, in 1978, returned with Charlee to his birthplace in Portland, Ore., where he planned to attend seminary and study the Bible. Soon after, the couple happened upon an abandoned mill during a walk. At age 49, he plunged into business again—buying the mill, painting it red, and salvaging millstones from other abandoned mills.
When fire destroyed the mill in 1988, he built another nearby and today is expanding the operation on estimated revenues approaching $200 million a year. Responding to a red-hot market for whole grains, his machines operate around the clock using millstones extracted from a French quarry.
“The simplicity of my business baffles people. We take grain and we grind it between two stones and we make flour or cereal and then we go home. We come back the next day,” he says with a laugh.
Moore has had plenty of offers to buy his company, but in 2010 opted to give it away. For his 81st birthday, he surprised his workers, now numbering about 350, by announcing that he would transfer ownership to them through an employee stock plan.
“People here bleed Bob’s Red Mill,” says Kasie Rapp, 46, a kitchen manager and five-year employee. “I love the philosophy, how the business was built and runs.”
Moore feels the same way. “Most people I know are just dying to get out of everything and retire at 65, but I’m doing what I want to do,” he says. “Why not just keep doing it?”