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Small Kansas flour maker still cooking

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, at 11:51 p.m.

— Stafford County Flour Mills was authentic before authentic was cool.

The maker of Hudson Cream Flour has operated for more than a century in the tiny Kansas town of Hudson (population 29), about 45 miles west of Hutchinson.

It was owned and run by the Krug family for two generations, who sold it to local investors. It is still largely owned and run by locals.

Oh, and it makes the same premium quality flour that it’s made since 1909. The mill built by founder Gustav Krug still forms the heart of the operation.

Hudson Cream Flour is a white flour that is lighter, more akin to cake flour than typical all-purpose flour. Krug even put a picture of a Jersey cow, known to produce the creamiest milk, on the front to drive home the message.

These days, the company continues to grow, slowly but steadily, in a slow-growing industry long dominated by giant millers and food processors. It sells mostly to repeat customers in Kansas and, by a historical fluke, to the central Appalachian region.

It remains a niche product that tends to sell itself to those who bake at home. But getting it in front of those home bakers is a constant challenge for the company’s brokers, who try to persuade buyers for the supermarket chain distribution warehouses to stock the product.

“They’re getting a premium product for the same price, or close to it,” said company president and general manager Reuel Foote. “We feel we need to be differentiated, otherwise why is anybody going to buy ours.”

Making it creamy

Flour becomes Hudson Cream Four because the wheat kernels go through an additional sifting process.

The mill is mostly automated in an extraordinary tangle of tubes. The wheat kernels are fed through a series of spinning rollers that crack the kernels in ever increasing fineness, and sifters that separate the flour from the bran. The flour runs 60 feet down from the top of the mill through the rollers and is blown back up to the top. Stafford County Mills runs it through seven times to produce Hudson Cream Flour.

Technically, that means that instead of 72 percent of the wheat kernel becoming flour, called patent flour, as is common with typical all-purpose flour, just 62 percent makes it. This is called short patent flour.

Only about 40 percent of the mill’s flour is produced as Hudson Cream. Other lines include regular patent flour for bulk sale sold under its Diamond H brand and flour produced for other companies and sold under their labels.

Secret to survival

Foote attributes the company’s ability to compete to running efficiently, and having relatively low costs.

They buy wheat largely from Stafford and surrounding counties, so their transportation costs for the wheat is relatively low.

“Being in wheat country, that’s an advantage,” he said.

And they sell every part of the wheat. Byproducts include a sticky flour sold as binder for dog food, spices and plywood, while the bran becomes animal feed. The company also operates a regular grain elevator buying and selling corn, milo and soybeans.

When Foote started in 1977, the mill produced 100,000 pounds of flour in 24 hours. Today, the number is 240,000 pounds.

The company has long since maxed out its total flour production. The mill runs 24/7 from mid-July through May, and five days a week in the other six weeks. It mills on average 5,000 bushels of wheat a day.

But while the mill, as is, can’t produce more, it can become more profitable. Foote’s goal is to keep pushing to change the mix away from lower-margin bulk flour sold to commercial bakers and more toward higher-margin 2- and 5-pound bags of Hudson Cream.

“The more I can put in my bag, under my name, the better off I am,” he said.

New markets

And that’s hard.

Because the company can’t really buy its way into the retail grocery distribution chain by paying for warehouse shelf space. They have to work personal connections in their existing markets and push at the edges.

They supply all Dillons stores in Kansas and have for decades. They are in Wal-Mart only in Hutchinson, Pratt and Great Bend and that’s only because they talked the store managers into letting them deliver to those stores. Foote has been trying to get the Wal-Mart buyer over Wichita to stock Hudson Cream in those stores, he said, but so far to no avail. They are also in some stores in the Kansas City area.

But their biggest market is in West Virginia and the mountain areas of surrounding states. That’s because back in the 1920s, a Kansan moved to West Virginia and convinced a wholesaler to buy a shipment of Hudson Cream. It became part of the local culture.

Mike Morrison, a broker in Huntington, W.Va., who sells the flour, said the biggest buyers are older women who prize the flour for biscuits.

As the generation used to home baking dies off, he said, sales of flour for home baking may shrink. But, he said the young have – to a lesser extent than their grandparents, but more than their parents – embraced cooking and baking.

The appeal of Hudson Cream is simple, Morrison said.

“It’s a good flour,” he said.

Foote said that prospects for the company remain solid. Within the next five years, they plan to move to 300,000 pounds of flour a day and, long-term, may build a second mill.

“You don’t see a lot of small companies do what we do,” Foote said.

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or dvoorhis@wichitaeagle.com.

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