A Note

If your build it the will come; King Arthur Flour

image from www.kingarthurflour.com  Julia uses it, Martha uses it, and more importantly my Uncle Carl uses it. I had heard of King Arthur Flour and had even seen it in my local grocery store. But King Arthur and Flour? I mean I've read a ton of  books on Arthurian Legend and I have been to the legendary wind swept Tintagel, but what connection does all of that have to a better Biscotti or Rosemary Brioche? Well, I'll tell you, when my brilliant chef/baker Uncle told me that this was only flour he uses and that he will order it through their web page or drive up to Norwich, VT to get it, a crusade was in order and thus I went in search of King Arthur.

The employee owned, King Arthur Flour Co. is now the oldest flour company in the United States and the oldest food company in New England. It is a product of the Sands, Taylor & Wood Company. The company originated when Henry Wood began importing flour into Boston Harbor in 1790.  During it's first hundred years the company went through many ownership changes, but never wavered from it's unique selling point. The company set a standard for the highest quality commercial flour available with no chemical additives and they were looking to focus in on their commitment to quality for their flours' advertising campaigns. By 1890 the brand of "King Arthur" flour was born, after one of the company's image from www.kingarthurflour.com principles was inspired by the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. "Strength, purity, honesty and loyalty", virtues long associated with the legend were the same adjectives the company was looking to describe its' products. During the early part of this century the company flourished under a series of aggressive and theatrical ad campaigns. Students were paid to dress as the King himself and ride through the streets of Boston and it's surrounding neighborhoods, they made a castle out of their trade show booth and there was even a president of the company who rode through the streets of the Big Apple, playing a pipe organ and singing of the goodness of their products. The King Arthur Brand became so popular in our region that complimentary products, such as coffee, tea, hot and cold cereals, and wheat germ were added to the line.

During the past 100 years the market for home baking flour has changed significantly. At the turn of the  century 80% of flour sold was to the home consumer, by 1960 that figure had decreased to 50% and today it only totals 4%. For the past 30 years Frank E. Sands II has presided over the company. He is the 5th Generation of  his family in King Arthur's Court. In an effort to compete and thrive in this diminishing market, Sands chose to lead the company in a path of expansion by acquisition. After a decade the company was by far, New England's biggest bakery supplier. It had grown over a thousand fold, employing 150 people and boasting 45 million in sales. But as King Arthur himself found out, bigger does not always mean better. In commanding such a large court, the uniqueness in what brought it together can be lost in the problems of keeping everyone happy, thus King Arthur went back to it's roots.

For this Company, going back to it's roots meant listening.  Brinna Sands, wife of Frank Sands is a dedicated baker and has faithfully used this flour all her life. It was her belief that customers, not unlike herself, were the company's future. In his own words, Frank Sands states, 'My wife is the visionary behind the company'. Decision was made to down size, sell off their complimentary product lines and re focus attention to selling what has long been considered "the best flour commercially available." 1990 characterized a dramatic turning point for the company. The year marked it's bicentennial and the production and distribution of it's first mail order catalog. The Baker's Catalog signified venturing for the first time beyond the walls of the Northeast corridor for sales.

How is it a better flour you ask? We already know that flour is a wheat product and the different types of wheat found in the King Arthur brand all come from the Midwest, pretty much as with all the other flour you can find on your grocery store shelves. The Kansas area is where their traditional wheat flour comes from, while spring wheat from the Dakotas is also used. King Arthur goes to a Kansas farmer's co operative for hard white wheat, winter wheat, and sweet wheat. The University of Kansas has developed an up and coming wheat which is high in protein. High protein flours are best for bakers looking for good rising quality, freshness and over all conformity, as a result they have set their protein standards at 11.7%. The bigger, more well known flour companies have chosen standards which are 10 times less stringent.image from www.kingarthurflour.com

King Arthur processes it's flour the same way as everyone else, but it does not include any chemical additives in the processing. Most flour companies use a lower grade of wheat. The chemical processing they utilize makes it available for use right away, where as King Arthur's must be allowed to oxidize for 3 weeks. Even so, it only takes four weeks from it's time at the mill to get a bag of flour home. From that point, if you keep your traditional white flour in a cool dry place it will last forever. On each bag of King Arthur's flour you will notice the slogan 'Never Bromated, Never Bleached'. Potassium Bromate has been linked to cancer and was recently outlawed in Europe, Japan and Canada. The chemicals used in bleaching flour are benzoyl peroxide (what you see in most over the counter acne medicines) and chlorine dioxide (found in the average bottle of laundry bleach).

 Clearly King Arthur's flour is of a much higher quality, so why does it only enjoy 2 percent of sales in the US market for home baking? In a word, Price. Quality costs and while King Arthur flour is not a lot more expensive than store brands, it does cost more. It is only the serious baker who will know the true value of it's quality. To test this, we got out our trusted old bread machine and  made bread with both a 5 pound bag of our store brand and a 5 pound bag of King Arthur flour.  The King Arthur flour consistently produced much bigger and better tasting loaves of bread.  Incidentally, when I mentioned Julia and Martha using it, I was speaking of the legendary Julia Child and the incomparable Martha Stewart. They both bake with and recommend this brand of flour, which speaks volumes in testimony to it's ability and goodness.

Ironically, even with a diminishing market and such a small percentage of  national sales the company is enjoying a 20% compounded growth rate. That growth is directly linked to customer loyalty and catalog sales. Sales outside of New England are related to transplanted New Englanders who have requested their new home town supermarkets carry King Arthur's finest. King Arthur was sold in 2,100 supermarkets last year. The one state sales lack in is Hawaii, but just give them time. The company's success is also attributed to their web site, which has helped to increase their catalog business, with 5 million distributed yearly. It is truly a baker's source, selling not only flour but a unbelievable range of complimentary products. If you are planning a big move and mourn the future inavailability of your favorite flour, worry no more. They ship everywhere, the US Embassy in Switzerland, the finest tables in Moscow, where customers will pay more for the shipping than the flour. Other companies have written off the home sales market, in fact Pillsbury is selling off their consumer product line. However, the estimated 2 to 3 million bread machines sold last year have helped prevent the total decline of home flour sales, in addition to granting the King Arthur Flour Company a larger portion of it.

IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL COME image from www.kingarthurflour.com
Today King Arthur resides in the picturesque mountain setting of Southern Vermont. There, in addition to offices and a distribution center, you will find the Baker's Store. Any flour, bread baking book, or related utensil you could want, will probably be found there. While waiting for the store to open on a Sunday morning, just after New Years, I was reminded of the saying from the movie 'Field of Dreams', "If you build it they will come." The parking lot was full of serious bakers from Rhode Island, New York, Maine, Colorado, Arizona to name but a few, all waiting for the doors to open. It is estimated that the average patron to this baker's paradise travels at least 3 hours to reach their destination, only those who have not been there will fail to understand why.

In our evolution we have made life's necessities, including bread, readily and easily available.  Why should anyone spend any time slaving over a hot oven for baked goods, when perfectly adequate substitutes are available at our local market? Especially since we all have a million other things to do. The reason can be summed up in one word, "Quality". As with my Uncle, most of us forget all about the quality of our lives, until we retire and slow down enough to think about it. Baking is not always a chore, often it is a catharsis, most especially when it is appreciated. The bottom line is, some of the best things in life are still the simplest. And therein lies King Arthur's appeal and success.

First published in Cooks Source, 1998

Photo Credit:  King Arthur Flour


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