Often the most important things in business are the integrity of the men and women who manage it and the quality of the products and services offered to its patrons. Many businesses have been started with these high standards in mind, but being able to execute and deliver for an extended period can be extremely difficult.
Interestingly, King Arthur Baking Company, formerly Henry Wood & Company, has been embracing and executing those very values since 1790. It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact this company originated when George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address and is still operating successfully today.
It all started in 1790 when a man named Henry Wood began importing flour from England to his Boston-based business. While the war prompted a boycott of English products, American colonists couldn’t kick their taste for fine English flour. When the war ended and trade was resumed, Henry Wood, under the name of Henry Wood & Son, was one of the commission merchants who imported and distributed the flour brought by English ships to the Long Wharf in Boston’s harbor. At the end of the 18th century, bread was still a basic dietary item for New Englanders, and Henry’s company thrived by delivering the finest quality.
As the young United States and its population grew, so did its appetite and demand for flour. Wood correctly assumed and made a big-bold-bet that this growing nation was going to need a lot of flour for baking. He also believed that many people were going to want the best and most pure, high-quality flour. From Martha Washington’s apple pie through the invention of the chocolate chip cookie, from flour in wooden barrels to bags at the supermarket, Henry Wood’s flour has been there. Below is an interesting timeline of events…
In the Beginning, Henry Wood & Company, the original ancestor of King Arthur Baking Company, was the first flour company in the young United States — and first food company in New England.
1820’s Start Using American Wheat – The company begins milling flour from American-grown wheat. As American farmers moved west, wheat farming flourished. A more bountiful wheat supply, along with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, made it possible for Henry Wood & Company to stop its English wheat imports and begin selling American-milled flour. Initially, King Arthur Flour was made of only hard-red-spring wheat from Minnesota and Canada. This high-protein wheat produced more gluten, which absorbed moisture better, made yeast-baked goods rise better, and kept baked goods fresher for a longer time. Wheat crops, however, were very vulnerable to the vagaries of the hot, dry weather, causing deterioration and diseases such as black rust. Nevertheless, they continued to safeguard the quality of their flour, even if that meant paying premium prices for the best grade of wheat.
Gold Discovered – Gold was discovered in northern California in 1848, and the rush was on. Hungry miners developed naturally fermented “sourdough” as a way to bake bread. And in 1849, The French Bakery became the first shop in San Francisco offering sourdough bread for sale.
Name Changes to King Arthur: When famine spread throughout Russia in 1891, demand drove wheat prices up and standards of quality deteriorated. The company tried to find a new name for its highest-quality flour. They referenced a musical production they had seen titled “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table”. They had been impressed by how the legendary King Arthur defended and upheld the ideals of strength, purity, and honesty. These were precisely the ideals that they held for this company, where they felt a strong corporate structure was represented by honest salesmen, high standards assured quality products, and the new unbleached and unbromated flour was to be sold to all dealers at the same fair price. They did not allow merchants to do any price-cutting and guaranteed the quality of each purchase. “King Arthur” Flour was introduced at the Boston Food Fair in October 1896 and became an instant hit.
Pies Become Big – Apple pies become huge in the mid-1800’s and other pies started to be invented. Pecan pie became a stalwart of Southern baking by the late-1800s. Its first actual appearance was in Harper’s Bazaar magazine, which published a rudimentary recipe in 1886. The entire pie-baking industry exploded shortly thereafter.
Pizza Makes its Way to America: Pizza was brought to America in the early-1900s, courtesy of a wave of Italian immigrants. But it wasn’t considered “takeout” until 1905 when Gennaro Lombardi began selling pizza out of his New York City grocery store — thus establishing America’s first pizzeria and massively more demand for flour.
Banana Bread Starts a New Craze – That most ubiquitous of quick breads, banana bread, first appeared on the American scene in 1930 not to showcase bananas — but thanks to the increasing availability of commercial baking powder and baking soda. Many other bread recipes started to be passed around and became popular.
Cookies Become Popular – A landmark moment in cookie history took place in 1933 when Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, added chopped chocolate to her sugar cookie recipe in an attempt to create a chocolate cookie. The chocolate didn’t melt… and the chocolate chip cookie was born. Shortly thereafter a ton of other cookies were invented and became wildly popular.
New Owners and New Ideas: The Sands family became the sole owners of the company in 1932, and in 1984, Frank Sands and his wife Brinna Sands moved the company to Vermont. Tired of lugging bags of flour to the post office to mail to retirees in Florida who couldn’t buy King Arthur outside of New England, Brinna started The Baker’s Catalog in 1990 and also published a “200th Anniversary Cookbook,” which has sold well over +100,000 copies to date.
Business Goes Online – Christmas Day 1996 marked the launch of the company’s first website, showcasing 13 recipes, an invitation to “sign our guest book,” and information on their four different flours. Today, the site features more than +2,000 recipes, +1,500 blog posts, and +1,000 baking products.
Bakery and Baking School Open – A long-time dream of King Arthur co-owner Brinna Sands was for the business to open an onsite bakery and school. After years of research and planning, Brinna’s dream came true: The King Arthur Flour Bakery and Baking Education Center opened their doors on our Norwich, Vermont campus.
Sold to the Employees: In a pivotal move, Frank and Brinna decided to sell the company to their employees in 2004, launching King Arthur’s Employee Stock Ownership plan. Carrying on a long-time business commitment to do the right thing, King Arthur proudly became a founding B Corp member, changing its bylaws to reflect its commitment to all shareholders, business partners, the community, and the environment. According to Nielsen tracking data, the company currently ranks No. 1 nationally for retail sales of unbleached, all-purpose flour. It is the second overall flour brand behind Gold Medal, owned by food giant General Mills.
Crazy Growth During Covid: It’s worth noting the company excelled during the pandemic, never running out of flour but they did have a hard time sourcing the bags to put it in. With record speed, King Arthur designed a new 3-pound bag and had it printed and shipped to the milling partner, the first of a planned million bags came off the line the week of May 4. This was just in the nick of time as on April 19, the company tallied a new one-day website traffic high of close to 1 million user sessions and 2.3 million page views, blowing past the previous record. In the end, King Arthur’s efforts to meet the challenges of the pandemic paid off big time. According to Eater, from April 1 through November 20, 2020, King Arthur saw exponential growth, selling the equivalent of 43.1 million five-pound bags that year, compared to just 23.7 million in 2019.
It’s incredible for any company to make it much past three or four generations, but in my opinion, this company’s continued commitment to simply providing the best quality product and never varying from that path has set them apart. This is just another fine example of an extremely successful business that sells the simplest of products and does all of the little things very well. Just remember, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist or have some crazy new invention to build a great, long-lasting, and profitable business.
I should also note, the company has a lot of great resources for bakers of all skill levels that you can check out at their website HERE. (Source:Americanlifestyle.com, mashed.com, burlingtonfreepress.com)