At plant in Oella, cutbacks signal a return to basics

The Baltimore Sun

A flour mill has perched by the Patapsco River in Oella for two centuries, but modern times have caught up with Washington Quality Foods, whose plant stands there today, and forced it to change course or disappear along with the hundreds of other local mills that once dotted the country.

Washington Quality Foods, Maryland's only remaining commercial mill, is going back to the basic task of turning wheat and corn into flour and meal - and laying off about 60 employees, roughly two-thirds of the work force, according to union and government officials

The manufacturer, whose brands include Raga Muffins, Mrs. Crutchfield's, Indian cornmeal and Washington self-rising flour, will cut about 40 employees on April 1, and more at a future date that has not been announced, said Carol Brooks, business services manager for the Baltimore County Office of Workforce Development.

Company officials declined numerous requests for interviews.

Jim Strong, sub-district director for United Steelworkers District 8, which represents the plant's workers, said the company has decided to stop producing muffin and other mixes and to focus on milling.

"They've decided to get out of the blending business," he said. "The market is very competitive. One of the big reasons is the Wal-Marts. They're going to be strictly a milling plant."

The layoffs affect the company's production and purchasing departments and also include members of management, Brooks said.

Staffing at the plant will drop from about 90 employees to about 30, according to Brooks. The manufacturer, a unit of Wilkins-Rogers Inc., has been grinding wheat and corn into flour and cornmeal at the 5-acre plant since the early 1970s, though milling operations have existed at the site since 1774.

Between 20 and 30 employees will be needed to handle the milling operation, Strong said.

Company officials have sought training and other transition services for their employees through the state. A job fair is planned for later this month, Brooks said.

"Many communities have lost local milling operations," said James A. Blair, vice president of the North American Millers Association, noting that only about 200 local mills remain active in the United States today. "It's interesting and special that [Wilkins-Rogers] has lived through periods of great consolidation in the industry and difficult times as a result of [low carbohydrate] Atkins and other fad diets."

The mill stands on the banks of the Patapsco on Frederick Road - a spot that two centuries ago saw the Ellicott City area's first industry when the Ellicott brothers started a flour mill.

Previously known locally for the test-batch doughnuts it sold inexpensively, family-owned Wilkins-Rogers today sells consumer food products, including grain-based mixes and coatings for food service companies. Wheat and corn is milled at the Baltimore County plant and a facility in Mount Joy, Pa.

Washington Quality Foods tried expanding in the late 1990s, buying the 500,000-square-foot former Stroh Brewery Co. plant near the Baltimore Beltway in Halethorpe for $7.5 million. The company spent more than two years and $25 million retrofitting the plant to expand milling operations.

But the company subsequently said there was not enough business to run both Maryland plants at full capacity efficiently. It consolidated operations in Oella, and sold the Halethorpe property in December 2004.

In 2003, the company said it was making as much as 400,000 pounds a day of dry mixes, such as muffin mixes and pancake batter, at the Halethorpe facility and 1 million pounds of flour and 60,000 to 80,000 pounds of cornmeal daily at its plant in Oella and another in Pennsylvania.

At that time company officials said they were staking the future on customized products and services rather than trying to compete in the competitive flour market. Sales in the batters and breading portions of the business rose 50 percent that year and company officials were predicting they would triple or quadruple by 2008.

Wilkins-Rogers has been a bright spot in what has otherwise been a bleak period for milling, the North American Millers Association has said. The company was able to achieve success by finding niches and not trying to compete with major milling companies, they said. Other industry experts have praised the company's competitive pricing for part of its success.

Essentially, this latest transformation will return the company to its roots as a miller, Strong noted.

"They feel optimistic that they will be a player in the flour and cornmeal business," he said.

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