The iconic founder of Bob’s Red Mill talks to Oregon Business about weathering the pandemic, how he learned about healthy food — and what’s next for the company.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Bob Moore got the rock-star treatment at food-industry trade shows.
“My picture’s on the package, and everybody thinks I’m dead, you know,” Moore tells OB. “I would have a prominent place in the booth, where I would talk to people and answer questions, and sometimes we had a pretty long line. Then people wanted their picture taken with me. So then we had a photographer who came to the show and took pictures, and gave copies of the pictures to the person right then and there. It went over pretty good.”
Moore, who turns 93 today, founded Bob’s Red Mill in 1978 when he was in his late 40s. Previously, he had run two gas stations in California, and later a Firestone tire store. Then he developed an interest in health food, particularly in whole grains, which in those days could often only be found in small health-food stores. The serendipitous discovery of a book on milling sparked an interest in the subject — and Moore began collecting old millstones.
Now Bob’s Red Mill’s catalog boasts some 400 products, though he’s quick to clarify that that number includes different package sizes of the same product. Those products can be found in supermarkets across the country and in markets around the world. Moore says the company experienced a brief period of contraction at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, temporarily discontinuing some products and reducing the number of places it was shipping them — particularly in overseas markets.
And while he’s transferred ownership of the company to its 700 employees, Moore still serves as its president and comes into work daily. Typically, the company celebrates Moore’s birthdays with a large party, but it has postponed plans for a large event due to the pandemic.
What follows are excerpts of a wide-ranging interview OB conducted with Moore earlier this month. Answers have been edited for space and clarity.
What He Does When He’s Not at Work:
I have five cars — Model A’s and others, older cars. I have a garage. I can keep them all in the garage. I have a nice shop. I have a grand piano that I play all the time. It’s a concert grand Steinway. I played piano; Nancy [Garner, Moore’s assistant] also plays piano. We have two pianos down at work and also in the store, and we oftentimes play them together. Music is really, really a big deal with me. I took violin when I was 9 for about five or six years, classical, and this gave me a music base from which I can play all kinds of music. But probably the one thing I spend the most time doing is reading. I love history, archaeology. biographies, autobiographies — if something has happened, I love reading about it. So I have a huge library even down here at work, because I look around historical history, books on history and everything else. It just fascinates me. That’s all. The world has always fascinated me.
I’m reading one right now about Egypt, called Tombs, Temples & Ancient Art. It was written, I suppose, 40 or 50 years ago, by a fella named Joseph Lindon Smith. He was an artist, about 1900, and he was hired to go into the tombs and things, and to make pictures of the various artifacts and whatnot. He’s done a fine job.
How He Learned to Eat Healthy:
First I met a lovely lady who was interested in health. When Charlee [Moore’s late wife] and I first met, I was a smoker. I guess she must have fallen in love with me, because I probably didn’t smell very good. Even with all the tobacco, we ended up having three boys. There was always something that was bothering her, things about health and how we didn’t eat healthily at the time. Then her grandmother stepped in. She ended up giving my wife several books by different scholars of healthy living in the 1950s. One — I’m looking at the end of it now — it’s called The Health Builder by J.I. Rodale. Then Adelle Davis, who wrote Let’s Get Well and Let’s Cook It Right. And then there was another guru, Gayelord Hauser, in Southern California. He was known as the health guru to the movie colony. And all these people spoke of whole grains and unprocessed food.
You know, it was all new to me. It wasn’t anything I knew anything about. But I gradually began reading these books. I’ve read them all — maybe a couple, three times, in fact. We began to change our way of eating and getting into whole grains. We dug around and found some health-food stores; I think we’ve always had a few of these health-food stores in town. They had whole grains and all kinds of unusual stuff that grocery stores weren’t even interested in. I think they thought nobody wanted it. And I think we kind of broke the ice with some of that, years and years ago when we started.
On Learning to Mill:
I walked into the public library one day, and lying on the table was a book called John Goffe’s Mill. Somebody had apparently taken it out of the stacks and then decided not to check it out. This gentleman in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s inherited a watered-power flour mill in Bedford, New Hampshire — a long way away, I’ve never been there. I was so fascinated with that. I thought, “Oh, my goodness, what I need to do is to go get me a flour mill someplace and start making whole grains.” You know, it’s a long process, but essentially that’s what I did. Bob’s Red Mill was that, that reading that book, because it gave me purpose and focus and a pathway to follow, because he was doing quite well.
He had other interests that I was interested in, too. He was an archaeologist for years. He traveled around Egypt and Mesopotamia and places like that. Then he came back home and his family had this mill, which he didn’t have much interest in. Then he began to take an interest in it. Besides being a good writer, he’s a very intelligent fellow and figured out how to make this thing work. And he tells a lot of things in his book. I got a lot of help from George Woodbury [the book’s author]. It’s out of print now, but I have a few copies and it’s really worthwhile reading. So anyway, that’s really what got me started.
I think we’re back to growth again. We had 160,000 square feet of warehouse space down the block, plus the mill here, which is 320,000. Orders keep coming in and business keeps getting a little better all the time. The property next door, which was 1 million square feet — the owners of it moved on. So we’ve contracted for 400,000 square feet of it. It’s a lot of space. It’s about 10 acres under the roof. We’re just moving in now. We’ve had possession of it for a couple of months, but it took a long time to put in racks and get everything going. So within the next couple of weeks, we’ll be fully out of that smaller warehouse and into the new one next door. And I think it’s going to make a difference in production and how soon we can get orders out. We also have invested in automated equipment to package our products. With the growth of the company and the public’s interest in whole grains, it seems like we were kind of in the right place at the right time. It’s been pretty good. When it comes to employees, I hired a young man when he was 19, and he retired here a few months ago after 44 years with me. We have about 700 employees now between the two places, the mill and the new warehouse. It’s been a pretty, pretty good success story.