King Arthur Baking's CEO on keeping America's oldest flour company in the mix

As America’s oldest flour company, King Arthur Baking Co. has seen a lot. It opened in 1790, when George Washington was president.

But little could have prepared it for the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when demand for King Arthur’s products jumped six-fold almost overnight. The company, based in Norwich, Vermont, scrambled to manage supply chains, ramp up production and to focus on in-demand items like bread flour.

CEO Karen Colberg, who worked in marketing at Gap Inc. before joining King Arthur in 2005, says the company leaned into its strengths. King Arthur already had a robust mail-order business, which makes up 30% of its sales, and it’s been sharing recipes and baking tips online for years.

“We built trust with the baker over decades,” Colberg said. “We didn’t have to react in the moment. That’s what we always did.”

Interest in home baking hasn’t subsided along with the virus. Bakers are now experimenting with more complex ingredients, Colberg said. King Arthur is seeing double the website traffic for its sourdough products compared to last year.

The company hopes to tap into that enthusiasm – and grow its market share outside of New England – by opening a handful of baking schools around the country. Colberg expects the first to open in early 2026.

The Associated Press spoke with Colberg about King Arthur’s growth and its unusual structure as an employee-owned company. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

A. We believe our product is a very good value, particularly for the heavy baker, because of the performance and the consistency. Baking is not only an escape — people say they do it for stress relief — but it’s also a less expensive way to bake a nice artisan loaf of bread. A boule of sourdough bread from a bakery can cost $6, $7, $8. And when you bake it at home you can have something just as good and warm out of the oven. So those economic pressures, those inflationary pressures, are also a reason that people are telling us they’re sticking with baking.

A. We have, over the past 10 years, really focused on innovation. We introduced gluten-free versions of our bread flour, and that was incredibly innovative because often people who are gluten-free have to give up bread. It’s one of the things we hear about the most, when you think about what problems we need to solve for bakers. And then most recently we introduced our bread mix kits. They’re basics: pretzel bites, focaccia. They go from box to table in about an hour. And that’s transformative. You’re inspiring people who may not have the whole day but they want fresh bread. Our business has definitely transformed so that we can be less dependent solely on flour, but flour is in everything we do.

A. It’s a wonderful gift to give this long-term opportunity to employees to continue to grow and own the company. It’s certainly a mindset. It’s very instilled in our culture. Everyone truly does have a stake in the business. Everyone has a right – and I take this so seriously – to express any concern about what we’re doing and how we’re doing that. We encourage that. Going into the pandemic, when there was an immense amount of uncertainty, people came together to figure out solutions in ways that we didn’t have to do before. People were game for training people to try new things. There’s that spirit of, ‘We’re all in this together.’ It’s definitely powerful.

A. I give the board a lot of credit. They said, “There’s a balance of skills of these three individuals. Let’s put them together to run the company.” I think it worked and it could work again. It works because of who you are as individuals. I think it requires humility. I think it requires recognition of what each person can bring and what you potentially don’t have. It required us to be very vulnerable in our communications and willing to say, “Oh, you’re right, I’m wrong, we should do it that way.” But it goes back to who you are as an individual and being able to step into that kind of relationship where you can’t control every decision that’s being made. If you have that need, I think co-CEO structure could be hard for you.”

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