Flour is King in Lowell


Three of the current generation of Doyles who own and operate King Milling Co. in Lowell. Left to right, Steve, Brian and Jim Doyle. Photo by Pete Daly

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) King Milling Co. will start production in its newest mill on its complex in November, bringing the total potential production capability at its Lowell facilities to 16,650 hundredweight of flour.

In other words, 1,650,000 pounds of flour. Every day.

Motorists often see King Milling’s bulk tank semi-trailers full of flour heading for points all over the Midwest. However, virtually no one actually sees the flour itself — not even at King Milling or at any other point until it reaches the end user, whether that be a home kitchen or a large commercial bakery or food processor. That’s because King’s high-tech milling system is completely enclosed, according to Brian Doyle, president of the company.

Despite the size and output of King Milling — actually, now three mills together — it employs only 50 people because it is a fully automated network of steel rollers and other equipment monitored and run by a computer program. The mill does generate other jobs in the Lowell area, however, in support of it.

The first flour mill in Lowell was built in 1844 on the east bank of the Flat River where it joins the Grand River. In 1867, another mill — Superior Mill — was built on the west bank of the Flat, where King Milling is today. When Superior Mill filed for bankruptcy in 1890, it was bought by a lumberman, Francis King. In 1900, another lumberman, Thomas F. Doyle of Parnell, bought into the business and eventually became sole owner, keeping the King brand name. The Doyles who manage the business today — Brian and his cousins, Jim and Stephen — are the fourth generation, and a member of the fifth generation is now working at the mill, too.

When it comes to flour millers, “we are the largest single mill” in Michigan, out of six in the state, said Brian Doyle. But he said that, compared to other flour millers in the U.S., King is considered small.

The new mill represents an investment “north of” $11 million, according to Doyle, who declined to go into specifics. However, he joked, “Fifth Third Bank loves us. We’re expecting an invitation to their suite” at Fifth Third Park to watch a baseball game.

The newest mill is for white flour, with a daily maximum capacity of 5,000 hundredweight (500,000 pounds). The other two mills currently in production have capacities of 7,500 hundredweight of white flour and 4,000 hundredweight of whole wheat.

Ground broke on the new mill last November; general contractor on the project was Todd & Sargent Inc. of Ames, Iowa. The milling machinery is the latest technology designed and built by a Swiss company.

On St. Patrick’s Day this year, a contractor began pouring the concrete for the pad and walls of the new mill — which went on, truckload after truckload, for six and a half days, 24 hours a day. The Doyles estimate it was enough concrete to build a sidewalk 3 feet wide and 4 inches thick from Lowell to Grand Rapids — a distance of 20 miles.

With all the high-tech machinery at the King mill, it may come as a surprise to learn that it still gets a little of its power from the Flat River — which is why it was built there in the first place. A sluice fed by the river spins a turbine that provides direct-drive power to machinery in the mill.

Doyle said it is only 1 percent or less of the power needed, but it is 140 horsepower, “and there’s some value there.”

“The company grew but the river didn’t,” joked Doyle.

Being next to the rivers is a major challenge, however, because of the effect humidity can have on a modern flour mill. Walls of the milling and storage facilities are heavily insulated, designed to prevent interior condensation. One of the biggest challenges ever to King Milling was the flooding of the Grand River that took place in spring 2013. Luckily, company management holds a disaster planning meeting every year focusing on a particular type of disaster. “Two years ago, we did floods,” said Doyle.

The flooding river in April was a huge interruption in business but, ultimately, “it didn’t do us any damage,” he said.

“And we learned some things,” added Jim Doyle.

One member of the team was assigned two years ago to obtain a stockpile of sandbags and locate a source of sand, just in case. They used sandbags to help seal heavy concrete barriers that were hauled in and placed around the plant.

King Milling had its own road cones, too, which came in handy during the flood. The town had been highlighted by the news media as a major target for flooding, so soon cars filled with gawkers were clogging the entrance to the plant, which is in the middle of downtown Lowell, making it difficult for loaded flour trucks to get out and trucks full of sand to get in.

The U.S. food industry — King Milling included — is awaiting a major revision of regulations from the Food & Drug Administration, the second in two years.

“Food safety is a huge issue” within the U.S. government, said Jim Doyle, and that includes safeguards against potential bioterrorism. But King Milling has been ahead of the regulators for years. In 1982, the first of several people in the Chicago area were fatally poisoned by Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. After the nationwide Tylenol scare, King Milling installed automatic electronically locking doors, and very few people today have access inside the plant.

King Milling’s bulk trailers also are virtually tamper-proof, and when a load leaves the mill, seals are put on the trailer showing that none of the locked ports have been opened between the mill and its destination.

Gordon Foods carries 25-pound bags of King Flour, but otherwise the brand isn’t seen much by the public. Most is bought by commercial contract bakeries in Grand Rapids — of which there are many — and by food processors.

The Doyles said flour milling, like much of the food processing industry, is very competitive and quite marginal in terms of profits. As a privately held business, the Doyles do not reveal annual sales revenues. But there is stability, because no matter what happens, people have to eat. When the U.S. economy booms, said Doyle, “we’re kind of steady. Then when the economy crashes — we’re kind of steady.”

Supplies of soft wheat come to King Milling from all over Michigan, according to Brian Doyle, but it also gets rail cars of hard red spring wheat from North Dakota and hard red winter wheat from Kansas and Nebraska.

Food industries grow with the population, but the Doyles said the U.S. per capita consumption of flour has been declining slightly. That may be due, in part, to current negative publicity about foods that contain gluten, which is the main source of protein in most grains, not just wheat, according to the Cornell Daily Sun at Cornell University.

“I fully realize that there are many people that have a medical reason to stay away from or extremely reduce their gluten intake,” said Brian Doyle. But he believes the real problem facing most people is simply overeating.

“Just because they put a whole stick of bread on your table at the restaurant doesn’t mean you have to eat it all,” noted Doyle.

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