Local flour mill's success is on the rise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Something's always cooking at Wilkins-Rogers Inc.

The owners of the last flour mill in Ellicott City used to be known locally for the test-batch doughnuts it would sell cheaply.

Today, employees are cooking up glazes, batters, dry mixes and marinades for corporate customers looking to bring a new kick to chicken wings, waffles and doughnuts.

With a new headquarters and mill in Halethorpe - the Ellicott City location is strictly a mill now - the 90-year-old maker of Washington flour, Raga Muffins and Indian Head cornmeal brands is staking its future on flour with flavor.

"What we're trying to do is insulate ourselves from the highly competitive [flour] market and go more into the value-added market," said Troy Rainbolt, vice president of sales and marketing. "We do that by customization of products and service."

Although the milling industry has declined recently - the number of mills in the country shrank by 10 percent in the past two years - Wilkins-Rogers is expecting revenue to grow 10 percent to $55 million this year, executives said. The batters and breadings portion of business is the company's secret ingredient: Its sales are up 50 percent this year, and company executives predict that segment's sales will triple or quadruple in five years.

James A. Bair, vice president of the North American Millers Association, said Wilkins-Rogers is a bright spot in what has otherwise been a bleak period for milling.

"They have been very attentive to filling niches and doing a really good job at what they do. They don't try to compete with the major milling companies," Bair said. "In the business world, it's chic to talk about core platform. Here's a company that invented it 100 years ago."

Bair said diets like ones that stress low carbohydrates have taken a toll on American consumption of grains, as have changes in transportation, shifts in population and corporate consolidation of mills.

Where it once made sense to mill wheat where it was grown and ship flour across the nation, it is now more cost effective to haul trainloads of grain to the country's population centers on the coasts and produce flour there, Bair said. That shift was underscored in May, he said, when the U.S. Census Bureau reported for the first time that the combined flour output from California and Hawaii topped Kansas' in the first quarter of the year. Kansas had dominated production since the early 1900s.

Wilkins-Rogers, founded in Georgetown in 1913, has been grinding wheat and corn into flour and cornmeal from its 175,000-square-foot mill on 5 acres in Ellicott City since the early 1970s. The company, which also trades as Washington Quality Foods, is the state's only remaining commercial flour mill. The company also owns Spangler flour mill in Pennsylvania. Samuel H. Rogers III, great-grandson of the company's founder, runs the company.

It purchased a former Stroh brewery, a 550,000-square-foot property on 40 acres in Halethorpe, in 1998. It opened its new headquarters and production line there about 18 months ago after spending $25 million retrofitting the plant to accommodate mixing, packaging and a research and development lab. The company employs about 150 people - 15 in Pennsylvania and the rest split evenly between the two Maryland plants.

The company produces dry mixes such as muffin mixes and pancake batter at the new facility, as much as 400,000 pounds a day. There, researchers in lab coats also handle racks of spices, mixing bowls and deep fryers to fashion new flavors for batters, cake mixes and poultry coatings for commercial customers.

The company's Ellicott City and Pennsylvania plants are strictly flour and cornmeal-making ventures, pushing out 1 million pounds of flour and from 60,000 to 80,000 pounds of cornmeal each day. Its brands are found on the shelves of most local grocery stores and in restaurants.

Although the Halethorpe factory is large enough to house all of the company's Maryland operations, Chief Financial Officer Jim Koehnlein said the company doesn't expect to consolidate for about five to 10 years. Developers have approached the company about building condominiums and retail on the Ellicott City site.

"We've had a lot of folks approach us, but we haven't entertained any of that right now," he said.

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