Inside the Flour Company Supplying America’s Sudden Baking Obsession
27 Aug, 2020 | 14 Minutes
Baking bread was a regular family affair in Linda Ely’s childhood home, leaving her with a lifelong bread-baking habit and some powerful memories. “I think of my family every single time I bake,” she says.
Ely has been able to pay some of that gift forward to the thousands of people she has advised over the Baker’s Hotline run by the company she works for — and is to a tiny degree a part-owner of — King Arthur Flour. Most of the people who call with bread-baking questions already know a thing or two about the craft themselves, but want to check on some of the finer points for a particular project: Should you alter the hydration ratio if you’re using a mixture of white, whole wheat, and almond flour? How long can you keep the unbaked dough in the refrigerator if you want an extended rise? So tricky and specific are some of the bread-baking questions that even though Ely is one of the bread specialists working the hotline, she sometimes puts callers on hold and yells over the cubicle walls to colleagues for second opinions.
But in early March, Ely noticed a change in the questions. Partly it was an increase in the sheer number of calls, a jump that seemed more sudden and pronounced than the normal mild pre-Easter build-up. But even stranger was how many of the callers seemed, well, clueless. How do you tell if the bread is done? Do I really need yeast? And strangest of all: What can I use instead of flour?
Ely and the other half-dozen or so hotline experts share an open office with the employees who take call-in orders from customers, and they, too, were getting a flood of odd calls. Namely, countless people were calling in to order as many as 10 of the company’s five-pound bags of flour at once. Who would need that much flour in their homes? “That was another data point that told us this wasn’t just the holiday build-up,” recalls Ely.
“I fired off a text to the sales team to check their figures,” says co-CEO Karen Colberg. “It was obviously some sort of mistake.” No mistake, came the reply.
Ely and her colleagues didn’t know it, but across Carbohydrate Camelot — the name that employees gave the 14-acre headquarters campus in Norwich, Vermont, that contains a restored farmhouse and a handful of small buildings — co-CEO Karen Colberg was staring in shock at the recent daily sales figures that had just popped up on her screen. “I fired off a text to the sales team to check their figures,” says Colberg. “It was obviously some sort of mistake.”
No mistake came the reply. The figures had already been double-checked. They showed a 600% increase in grocery-store sales almost literally overnight.
Within hours, a simple truth became clear. Flour was flying off grocery-store shelves, propelled by a sudden and seemingly insatiable demand that was carrying into King Arthur’s much smaller online business, too. It was as if half of America had decided all at once that they needed to bake. A lot.
At first, it seemed like a complete mystery. It’s not that Colberg and others at the company were unaware that outbreaks of a nasty new virus had struck China and Italy, and that concerns were rising about flare-ups in the U.S. But in the sleepy New England village of Norwich, the disease felt a million miles away. No one was thinking about lockdowns.
Of course, the lockdowns were already starting in New York, and other parts of the country were just days away from following. And tens of millions of people were looking to stock up on whatever sorts of items might become essential if they were trapped in their homes for weeks or even months. Toilet paper was high on the list, as was hand sanitizer. And in a twist that almost no one saw coming, baking supplies were a high priority, too. Cakes, cookies, and most of all, fresh-baked bread would serve as balms for the anxiety, boredom, and alienation sure to follow on the pandemic’s heels. In a sense, baking was the first treatment to emerge for the coronavirus.
As far as most consumers could tell, there was no flour anywhere, at any time, even though about half a million bags a week were getting into consumers’ hands.
King Arthur had become just one of many companies, including their direct competitors in the flour business, forced to confront soaring demand. But in a way that didn’t equally apply to the makers of Charmin, Purell, or Pillsbury, King Arthur had reason to feel its reputation was on the line. As both a premium and bestselling brand treasured by both professional and home bakers, the company had worked diligently over not just years, but centuries, to establish a trusting relationship with customers.
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