After a full career in the auto business and launching an unlikely milling business in Redding, California, Bob Moore hit upon his true calling in Oregon — and in so doing made hundreds of millions of dollars after his 60th birthday — by selling flour and grains.
“I’m a good salesman,” says the man whose picture adorns Bob’s Red Mill products shipped to virtually every continent on earth.
But he doesn’t pull his punches when talking about the Bob’s Red Mill product he wishes you didn’t buy.
“Do you sell white flour?” he is asked over lunch among his customers at the Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grain Store and Restaurant.
“I do. I can’t get around it,” Moore says with a sigh. “We’ve made a high quality, higher protein white flour. It’s better. It’s unbleached and organic. But I still don’t think people should eat it. They should eat whole grains.”
The namesake of Bob’s Red Mill started this business venture with a simple passion to eat better and live longer — while helping others do likewise. He had no expectations that his small mill with a handful of employees would become a global company with more than a hundred million dollars in annual revenue against zero debt.
When you start a business nearing retirement age you really don’t think quite so grandiose, he says. He pauses at the memory to consider all the turns his life took.
“It’s pretty cool. I’m very lucky.”
You can’t spend ten minutes with Moore and not hear words like “amazing” and “cool.” He brims with optimism and enthusiasm for everything around him. If Bob Moore, 86, has a catch phrase it’s oddly the colloquialism of a teenage Valley Girl.
“It’s really cool,” he says about everything from his new 1.2 million-dollar manufacturing machine to playing side-by-side pianos in the Red Mill store every Friday with his Sidekick, Institutional Memory, Keeper of the Schedule, and Executive Secretary Nancy Garner.
He says it so much that those around him say it too.
“It’s really cool,” Garner said about the plant’s technology during a tour earlier in the day.
Moore’s corner office is equal parts working office and museum. Piles of papers, proposals and the common detritus of a busy CEO co-mingle with knickknacks and memorabilia from his diverse life and interests in an eclectic mix of paperwork, memories, and passions that aides in the telling of his story. As Moore recalls the sixty-year business career that brought him to this point of wealth and acclaim, he routinely relies on visual points of reference on the walls, the shelves, the tables and his desk to aid in the telling.
He points to an old library book with the plastic cover and “property of” sticker still affixed. The book, John Goffe’s Mill by George Woodbury, remains a treasured artifact.
“That was the key to this whole thing right now. Honestly,” he says.
But his orderly mind doesn’t want to get ahead of itself. Bob circles back in his memory, further back before the mills, when cars were his thing. He struggled as a gas station owner early in his life, then worked as a manager for auto centers in the Sacramento area. He started reading other books, he says. He walks over to another part of the office where he has a small library of 1950s and 1960s health food books, including Let’s Get Well by Adale Davis.
“These people seemed to grasp the impact of devaluing food,” Moore said. Davis’ book, he says, motivated him to change his life entirely.
It was the 1960s, a full half-century before terms like “foodie” or “localvore” became commonplace. All of Sacramento had two health food stores, Moore recalls. But Moore’s wife Charlee “started cooking with that stuff, the whole grains, and gee, it was good.”
Moore quit smoking and became a closet health-food nut, a passion that grew as he moved his family to the then rural community of Redding, California. Health food options were “pretty slim pickins’” he said.
The first mill
JC Penney in Redding recruited Moore to run its auto center. Moore interviewed while Charlee scoured the area with the couple’s children. They met back up with mutual good news.
“I said, ‘I got the job.’ She said, ‘I got a house.’ It was just like God was speaking to us. It was pretty amazing,” Moore recalled.
While working for JC Penney, Moore read John Goffe’s Mill and was hooked.
“It was really cool,” he said, of the story of an archeologist who took over the family mill.
“He didn’t know a thing about it,” Moore says. “He didn’t know anything about selling, but I was good at selling, and then he didn’t know a thing about milling either. How much success he had, I don’t know. But he had a lot of fun.”
Moore decided to send letters all over the country in search of a mill. He sent 16 letters to various mill owners.
“I got a letter back from just one of them” he says, his hand slapping the table with excitement. “He just inspired me. He and his brother had a mill in Muncie, Indiana… his name was…”
His calls into the adjourning office for Garner asking the name of his “inspiration.” A man who has inspired hundreds around his plant has no shortage of inspirations himself.
“Dewey Sheets,” Garner says. Moore enthusiastically agrees.
Inspired by Sheets, Moore bought milling equipment from around the country, at a time when mills were not only out of fashion, but closing down.
Moore points to another photo, a picture of 2,000 square foot Quonset hut. Inviting two sons to join him in the business as equal partners, they launched Moore’s first mill.
“We all worked other jobs,” he said. “I worked two more years at Penny’s. It’s crazy how it worked out. It was really cool.”
An old advertisement from the early days hangs on a cluttered wall, offering 3-lbs of 7-grain cereal for $1.49 and other “high-fiber foods” like Colorado Popcorn and Brown Rice.
That business continues under the ownership of Moore’s children to this day, in part as a vendor for Bob’s Red Mill.
“I’m very pleased with the boys,” he says.
In 1976 he and Charlee decided to retire and go to seminary together. They moved to Portland to study Greek and Hebrew at what was then the Western Evangelical Seminary.
One day while walking home he saw an abandoned mill, re-igniting his passion for milling.
“I just love this business,” he says, pointing to a photo of the first Red Mill before it was painted red.
Soon he bought it. Soon after that some of his fellow seminary students were helping him run it.
It felt more like a calling than a job. For the man who retired to study Biblical languages, his calling was forged from the pressure of millstones grinding grains into healthy foods. He had to choose between studying scriptures or selling flour. He left school and returned to business full time. Bob’s Red Mill began.
“Everything was an inspiration,” he said. “It was so different. But ever since we started this thing we were successful.”
The business went well with its wood floored retail store and Moore still milling grain. An early photo of the first employees hangs on another part of his cluttered office. Two of those pictured still occupy offices in the plant, having grown along with the company.
That commitment to people met a stern test a few years later in 1988 when Moore’s thriving mill burnt to the ground after an arsonist set it ablaze. He could have cashed the insurance check and walked away, and even return to his Biblical studies if he desired.
He thought about it, he admits, but only briefly. The mission for both his customers and his employees and his passion for healthy food ended all thought of retirement. Bob’s Red Mill moved to a larger location just a few miles away—though the business was leveled, Moore was able to salvage the three stone mills from the fire—and the business exploded on the national, and now global, marketplace.
The first page
Moore said when he started Bob’s Red Mill he wanted to do one thing he hadn’t done in past businesses. He wanted to apply Biblical standards like The Golden Rule, The Apostle Paul’s teaching on money, or most importantly, the “first page of the Bible” that talks about the Earth’s abundance of seed and herb, all of which God deemed “good.”
“I began to take it seriously,” he says.
He describes how the industrialized food economy changed the basic nature of seed, and altered the grain by removing the bran, for example. He remains inspired by returning people to the food that God called “good” on the first page of the Bible.
“Of all the things I could do, that is something,” he said. “Being on the first page of the Bible is cool. That’s the business I am in… I’m cooking on some different kind of burners here. I’m producing whole grain food for a different kind of reason than I did when I was in Redding. It was more than a way to make a living.”
It was, and remains, a mission.
Grinding it out
Perhaps the earnest nature of Moore’s mission inspires his hands-on approach to the business. This is no figurehead. He shoves his hands into the bags of flour as they are filled, inspecting quality. He asks questions of employees with the intensity of a prosecutor, but greets them with equal enthusiasm.
Whatever can be done under Moore’s supervision, the better, it seems, from the in-house test kitchen where Moore samples gluten-free cookies, to the print shop that churns out labels in diverse languages like Farsi and Hindi, to the gluten-free testing lab where lab technician Ron Crippen tests every gluten-free product that comes into Bob’s Red Mill.
Moore stresses the company used to send samples to a lab for testing. It wasn’t fast enough or as reliable as he wanted, so he set up the lab, along with a sealed off processing plant separate from all the other products.
Moore said they only take products from those who only do gluten-free.
“It’s not going to work if they do a glutenous product. It’s just impossible” he said.
Crippin tests roughly 200 samples a day.
“It doesn’t take much—one little dust grain—to make it spike,” he said.
If it needs to be done on a regular basis, Moore wants it done in his plant under his watchful eye. Even at 86 that hasn’t changed. His casual demeanor is nudged out of the way temporarily when questioning an employee about a sink for the kitchen that hasn’t yet been installed. No detail is too small for Moore’s intense interest and inspection.
This attention to detail explains why Meghan Keely now works at Bob’s Red Mill as the designated Safe Quality Food Practitioner, who ensures all standards across the globe are met and exceeded.
“It’s us saying no, we’re not going to maintain the status quo,” Moore said of recently creating the position Keely now holds, “but we’re going to go above and beyond.”
An entire room is designated for company uniforms which have the company logo of Bob on the left chest and the employees name on the right.
“I came from gas stations. I like uniforms,” Moore said. “I wanted the place to look nice.”
These details, the excellence, the focus is what has made the business thrive and profit, but the mission to promote healthy living—that old first page of the Bible that God called good–is never far from Moore’s mind.
“Bob has a passion about healthy foods for the whole world. That has led to prioritizing the education and outreach,” says Lori Sobelson, director of corporate outreach.
“We want to change the world,” Moore says simply, still very much a businessman and a missionary for healthy living.
“It’s pretty cool,” he says again.
To be continued…