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Bob Moore, the founder and CEO of Oregon-based Bob’s Red Mill who died earlier this month at age 94, was a food industry original. In addition to building a major vertically-integrated food company and brand, he contributed significantly to the modern industry we see today.

While managing a JCPenney automotive shop in Redding, California in the 1970s, Moore discovered a library book, John Goffe’s Mill, in which Harvard University anthropologist George Woodbury described in detail how he restored an old rundown mill in New Hampshire. 

The book, which coloufully describes traditional milling techniques and sings the praises of stone-ground flour, oats and corn meal, inspired Moore to find a mill of his own, which he did, opening Moore’s Flour Mill with his wife Charlee and two of their sons in Redding, California in 1974. 

A few years later, Moore turned the mill over to his sons and he and Charlee moved to Portland, Oregon where he enrolled at Western Evangelical Seminary to become a seminarian and follow what at the time he thought was his calling. But, in less than a year, Moore and his wife discovered an old mill for sale in nearby Milwaukie, Oregon, and he realised his true calling was what he had only recently left: milling and grains. He was also motivated to create healthier foods by his father’s death from a heart attack at age 49. The Moores bought the mill and Bob’s Red Mill was founded in 1978. 

By the mid-1990s, Bob’s Red Mill was one of the top companies in the natural products segment of US packaged foods. Today, the Bob’s Red Mill brand is distributed nationally in grocery stores here in the US and in 70-plus countries, generating more than $100m in annual sales.

Moore’s legacy will live on because he turned the company over to its employees via an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) in 2010. He also stepped down as CEO in 2018 to facilitate new leadership. The current CEO is Trey Winthrop, who’s been with the company for 17 years.

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Moore is probably best known within the industry for his signature white beard, wire-rim glasses, red vest, (and red coat for dress up), newsie cap and bolo tie, all truly original style points for Bob as well as good branding. But, in terms of industry impact, he and Bob’s Red Mill deserve credit for bigger things. 

First and foremost, Moore and Bob’s Red Mill has played a major role in the growth of the healthier or better-for-you segment in CPG by making healthy grains and grain-based products, along with gluten-free alternatives, widely available to consumers via grocery store shelves. Bob’s Red Mill started with natural foods stores in the early days and today its hundreds of SKUs are in stores of every format, including those owned and operated by Walmart, Kroger, Target and Albertsons.

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Bob Moore also demonstrated that the investor-acquisition paradigm so much in vogue today isn’t the only way to start, build, grow and maintain a food company. Over the years, numerous big food companies approached Moore about acquiring Bob’s Red Mill, as did numerous investors, particularly VCs, offering to invest, but he politely declined. Instead, Moore built the company and brand organically and, when the time came, decided to turn it over to the employees rather than cash out with a big sale. Perhaps his seminarian calling wasn’t fully extinguished?

Moore was a fixture at the annual Expo West Natural Products show, which happens next month in Anaheim, California. Every year, the Bob’s Red Mill booth is among the most popular at the show and I expect it will be the same this year, even though Bob Moore won’t be there to dispense wit and wisdom.

In the wake of his passing – and in advance of Expo West – food companies from the smallest start-ups and emerging brands to the majors should consider the lessons they can learn from Bob Moore and Bob’s Red Mill. 

Authenticity

Authenticity is an essential attribute for a brand to be successful today and Bob’s Red Mill exemplifies authenticity from the mill floor to the branded product.

Authenticity starts with the company and goes to the product and how it’s marketed and sold. Bob Moore understood this, which is why the reputation for Bob’s Red Mill products is among the highest for any brand in the industry.

Retail matters

Bob’s Red Mill got its first big break at retail in the 1980s with the Fred Meyer chain (now part of Kroger) in the Pacific Northwest. The chain put four- and eight-foot dedicated Bob’s Red Mill sections in many of its stores. Instant branding at retail.

Bob Moore learned a lot from that first experience and worked with distributors and retailers to get similar sections in stores throughout the country, including spending the money it takes to achieve this. Retail matters and this has become a big part of the secret sauce for Bob’s Red Mill, which is is one of the few brands that often gets dual placement. You’ll often see products in both the four-foot or eight-foot segregated sections, for example, as well as inline in the respective section, like cereal for its oatmeal SKUs, the rice section for its rice SKUs, etc.

Own a category

Bob Moore set out to make the Bob’s Red Mill brand synonymous with grains first and then through line extensions with everything grain-related – and it’s worked.

This was most evident during the 2020 pandemic period when Bob’s experienced an astronomical bump in sales because people were baking once again and turned to what they perceived to be brands that offered them the most value. Bob’s Red Mill was one of those. The company experienced huge growth during that period. Much of it has stuck.

Vertical integration

Bob’s Red Mill is a mill as well as a packaged goods company. Manufacturing (at least some or most of the products you package and sell) offers numerous benefits over co-packing if companies can do it.

Bob Moore understood this, which is why the company continues to operate the way they have since 1978. 

Branding

Branding takes in everything a food company does, not just the things its marketing department does.

Bob Moore understood this and set the tone for the Bob’s Red Mill brand. The key is authenticity. He based the brand on his values and made sure they were reflected in everything the company did, right down to his turning the company over to employees with the ESOP, allowing a major part of its mission statement to read “employee-owned”.

The most important legacy Bob Moore leaves is an employee-owned Bob’s Red Mill. The company is doing well, the employees are happy, and I expect it to continue raising the bar in the natural products industry and making new contributions to the food industry as a whole. A life well done.