You may not have heard of Cereal Food Processors before, but chances are its products are currently in your pantry or on your kitchen table. It is the largest independent flour milling company in the U.S., and its local facility is the exclusive flour producer for major bakeries throughout the Portland metropolitan area. It is also a longtime tenant at the Port of Portland’s Terminal 4.
Located inside a nondescript building in one of the oldest sections of the terminal, flour is made to order for generic and name brand companies familiar to the shelves of your local grocery store. Bread flour starts with the raw agricultural product – bushels of hard wheat from Montana, which is delivered seven railcars at a time.
Upon arrival, the cleaning house separates out the stalks, dirt and rocks before water is added to achieve uniform moisture. Rollermills open the kernel to extract the flour. After the first pass, it starts out looking like Cream of Wheat or Malt-O-Meal. From there, the milling is a gentle reduction process, which involves continually grinding and sifting until the final product is achieved.
Parts of the facility appear as complicated, intricate and visually intriguing as a Rube Goldberg machine. It is also beautiful in its simplicity, with most of the processes and equipment working seamlessly and unchanged for decades.
The business was sustainable long before the word came into favor, with all parts of production inputs used or recycled in some way. The zero-waste facility produces 760,000 pounds of flour per day, as well as 225,000 pounds of cattle feed.
For mill superintendent Bill Schlaefli, working with wheat is a family tradition. He grew up on a wheat farm in Kansas and earned his degree in milling science from Kansas State University — the only university in the U.S. with that degree program. He supervises a staff of 21, including four administrative staff and 17 hourly union workers from the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers, Local 114.
Schlaefli has overseen operations at the Terminal 4 facility since 2003, and he has an excellent track record for quality control. “We have never had quality issues here,” said Schlaefli. “Testing is conducted continually for quality and protein content. Our sampling lab checks the product against strict specifications and 99.9 percent of our flour passes the test.”
The mill at Terminal 4 was originally known as Eagle Flour; then it operated as Terminal Flour Mills for 60 years; and Cereal Food Processors bought the facility in 1982. It is now one of 10 that the company owns and operates in the U.S. Schlaefli said that there was virtually no impact on demand or production resulting from last year’s economic downturn. In fact, he said the only real fluctuations he’s seen over the years was the Atkins Diet craze and annual increases attributable to barbeque season between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“As the population grows, our business grows,” said Schlaefli. “We depend on people being hungry.” So just remember, the next time you bite into a sandwich, a piece of toast, or a hamburger bun, there’s a story behind it – and that story begins at Terminal 4.