With businesses struggling to survive the economic downturn of the pandemic, a few sectors are finding themselves right in line with unanticipated shifts in consumer behavior. Take for instance the sudden baking obsession that has gripped America since the shutdown, causing widespread yeast and flour shortages. King Arthur Flour is certainly no stranger in rising to occasions over its 200-year history. The company offers an insightful case study in adaptation, thriving in the midst of scarcity by virtue of their heart-centered mission — to be the ultimate resource and inspiration in the kitchen, to inspire connections and community through baking, and to use business as a force for good.
Founded in Boston in 1790, King Arthur has adopted a different approach to its milling practices than its competitors, selecting prime wheat, refusing to bleach, or add bromates, tightly controlling the precise protein content of its flours. This premium approach carries a 25 percent price increase over competitors, but since the 19th century, King Arthur has outsold its competitors four to one, and by 2019 its sales hit $150 million. King Arthur’s bread flour is now the number one seller in America, with only General Mills’ Gold Medal outselling them in all-purpose flour alone.
Employee-owned since 2004, King Arthur has been relying heavily on their nearly 400-strong workforce to offer a warm, celebratory approach to baking that has built loyal relationships with bakeries and home bakers alike. In early March at Carbohydrate Camelot, the name given by employees to King Arthur’s 14-acre headquarters campus in Norwich, Vermont, their Baker’s Hotline began ringing off the hook, right about the same time co-CEO Karen Colberg was triple checking sales numbers. They were about to shut down their cafe-bakery, store and baking school which together make up the third-busiest tourist destination in Vermont. Three-fourths of their workforce started transitioning to work from home. And yet, the company had seen a 600 percent increase in sales overnight. Flour was flying off the shelves and folks were calling to see if they could order 10 bags at a time. Colberg called a meeting of the owners: “During a crisis there are a lot of problems to solve, and you won’t be able to solve them all. We decided the one we had to solve was how to get more all-purpose flour to consumers.”
King Arthur’s website currently sells over 1,000 baking-related ingredients and supplies, including spices, espresso powder and parchment paper. The company’s brand line of distinct flours totals 42, including white, whole wheat, organic, grain-free and pizza flours. Keto flour will make 43. The website normally sees its largest numbers on Thanksgiving, but on March 15 traffic spiked to break that record and there are now more than 1 million visits to the website each day. To answer the increase in demand, King Arthur has made significant innovations, including working with new partners to manufacture small 5 – 10 lb bags of flour. There is no shortage of wheat in America, but it takes a lot of effort to mill, bag and transport the millions of pounds that we are now using to bake each day. To support this new-to-baking community, King Arthur doubled down on social media, turning their employee-owners into content creators. Now their Instagram has over half a million followers.
While we are baking more at home, small bakeries are barely staying afloat. Making good on their mission, King Arthur launched For Goodness Bakes, investing an initial $32,000 to pay a dozen bakeries nationwide, including Empire Bakery in Dallas, and Houston-based Fluff Bake Bar and Angela’s Oven to bake for local causes addressing food insecurity. Back home in Norwich, they’ve been baking up a storm for essential workers and those in need.
In a time when our daily bread is increasingly harder to come by, King Arthur Flour is rising again.