Sunday, September 12, 2021
Flashback 1998: A century of cornflakes
BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—This is the town built on cornflakes.
Not just cornflakes. Also wheat flakes, bran twists, rice crisps and more.
But cornflakes, which turn 100 years old this year, are the leader of the pack, the king of the breakfast table, the world's most popular dry cereal.
The company that invented and first vended the humble flake of corn—the first product it ever sold nationally—has certainly come to dominate life in this modest town of 50,000 souls. A brief drive reveals the Kellogg Regional Airport and the Kellogg Community College, the Kellogg Arena, the W. K. Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research, not to mention the enormous Kellogg factory and the Kellogg international corporate headquarters, its soaring lobby displaying metal sculptures of stylized wheat stalks and a daily posting of the latest price of Kellogg stock.
What you can't see are cornflakes being made, not anymore. The popular tours of the Kellogg's plant, part of the childhood memories of millions of Midwesterners, were discontinued in 1986 when a state-of-the-art, $500 million plant expansion opened. The company feared corporate spies.
The resultant flakes seem fragile to support such huge popularity. Kellogg's sells them in 160 countries. Search for reasons why, and the company, perhaps predictably, points to taste.
"Simple is good," said Anthony Hebron, a Kellogg's spokesman. "You've got a simple formula; a crispy, golden brown flake with a bit of a nutty taste, a taste that travels well throughout the world."
The cornflakes success story is more complex than that, of course. Advertising is vital. Kellogg's spends 50 percent more to advertise a box of cornflakes than it does to buy the ingredients inside.
This is nothing new. Advertising always has been important; the Kellogg's advertising budget first passed $1 million in 1911, five years after the Kellogg Co. was founded by William Keith Kellogg.
He was the son of a wealthy Michigan broommaker named John Preston Kellogg, who supported the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a sect formed in Battle Creek just before the Civil War and dedicated, among other things, to a strict dietary regimen: no meat, no caffeine, no alcohol.
J. H. Kellogg, a respected doctor, something of a celebrity in his trademark white suits, toured the world dispensing nutritional advice, while his brother, a self-described "flunky," stayed in Battle Creek and kept things running.
The brothers were constantly experimenting to find ways to get the foods they considered healthful into their sanitarium guests. As with many breakthroughs, the flakes were discovered by accident. The Kelloggs were flattening wheat dough with rollers and baking it in sheets. But W. K. Kellogg left a batch of dough out overnight, so it dried, and when it was run through rollers the next day, it broke into flakes instead of flattening.
At first, the wheat flakes were served just to customers at the sanitarium. But visitors wrote in, wanting to buy the flakes after they returned home, and in 1896, Kellogg's started selling cereal through the mail.
The Kellogg brothers were slow to realize the commercial implications of breakfast cereal. While they were still doling out cornflakes to sanitarium guests, and sending a trickle through the mail, dozens of companies sprang up in Battle Creek to sell cornflakes—Korn-Kinks, None-Such, Checker Brand Corn Flakes, Indian Corn Flakes, Corn-O-Plenty—42 in all, including one founded by a certain C. W. Post, who first made his name with an imitation coffee called Postum.
Post sold its brand of cornflakes, Post Toasties, before Kellogg's got its on the market. The Post factory is still in Battle Creek, directly across the train tracks from the Kellogg's plant.
J. H. Kellogg was content running his sanitarium, but his brother yearned to take on a larger challenge. In 1906, he formed W. K. Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flake Co. He was 46 years old.
Kellogg grabbed attention by running ads—the first, in July, 1906, appeared in 17 major magazines, offering coupons for free samples from local grocers. The hitch was that few grocers carried Kellogg's cornflakes—Kellogg gambled that customers would lobby their local grocer to carry the brand so they could redeem their free coupons. He was right.
Kellogg tried to distinguish himself from the pack by touting his cornflakes as the original and instructing customers how to walk out in a huff if they weren't available: "What? Have you no Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes! Then bring my hat and coat—I don't want any of your substitutes," read one advertisement.
Early ads explained that cereal tasted better with milk or cream.
A survey of the company's archives shows it trying any angle that would boost sales. Cornflakes as a refreshing meal in the un-air-conditioned 1920s. ("Kellogg's for Koolness.") Cornflakes for lunch, "for extra meals at odd hours, for children's suppers" in a 1945 ad.
Miss America graced boxes of Kellogg's cornflakes, as did Yogi Bear. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson smiled from election-season boxes.
That year, Kellogg's hit on perhaps its greatest idea for selling cornflakes: sugar. The company's Sugar Frosted Flakes were an immediate hit, as was one of its two mascots, Tony the Tiger. Katy the Kangaroo, the alternate mascot designated for children "scared of tigers," didn't last as long.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 29, 1998