Miller's tale a daily grind Brand names: Wilkins-Rogers Inc. takes Maryland grain and turns out such products as Raga Muffins and Washington mixes and flour at its Ellicott City plant.

April 29, 1996|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

When the nation was young, millers sought the junction of field, falls and harbor. They came to Baltimore.

Field for grain. White water for power. Blue bay for commerce. Nowhere else from Georgia to Massachusetts do the three coincide. Two centuries ago, grist turned to dust under 200 millstones on the falls of Jones, Gwynns, Gunpowder and Patapsco.

Those days are gone -- stolen by time, steam energy and the unlocked West. But like a Triassic survivor on an island primeval, Wilkins-Rogers Inc. carries one of Maryland's oldest industries into the age of the fat-free, quick-mix muffin.

The state's only remaining commercial flour mill, Wilkins-Rogers occupies an Ellicott City site where wheat has been processed since 1774.

But it is no mere monument to nostalgia. In Ellicott City and at another mill in Pennsylvania, Wilkin-Rogers grinds $50 million in flour, cake mix and poultry breading a year.

It employs 100 in Ellicott City, its headquarters. It buys much of Maryland's wheat crop, puts cakes in Marylander's ovens and successfully vies with Cargill and the other Midwestern megamills. "Washington" mixes and flours are its best-known brand.

"We kind of view grain milling as the second-oldest profession in the world," said Michael S. Everett, who has a degree in milling from Kansas State and is Wilkins-Rogers' executive vice president.

He sits at a sheet-metal desk in a cramped office, suspended in a nine-story warren of concrete, fieldstone, steel I-beams, glass and timber, brick and linoleum. One building dates mainly from 1920; another from 1940. Both sit on the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River on Frederick Road.

A cornerstone reads: "1809." A few yards away, growling 18-wheelers back in.

"They don't make them like this anymore," Mr. Everett says wryly. "And there's a reason!"

Wilkins-Rogers has thrived for decades with little advertising, low prices, high quality, a well-known brand and big non-brand jobs for regional supermarkets and restaurants.

"One of the reasons that they're still in business is that they produce wonderful products," said Dennis Zembala, executive director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

"They basically have a regional market, but they've been really good at developing these packaged mixes."

Encouraged by rising grain consumption, Wilkins-Rogers is trying to add sales and seek new niches between the footprints of the industry giants. It's trying to boost sales to restaurants. It purchased a third mill three years ago, out of a bankruptcy case in Boonsboro, Md., and plans to open it if business expands.

The company is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on grocers' shelf fees -- something it rarely does -- to establish its "Mrs. Crutchfield" line of low-fat and fat-free baking mixes. It's also pushing its "Raga Muffin" easy-mix packs for kids.

"We knew we were on the front end of a trend," Mr. Everett said of the Mrs. Crutchfield line, introduced two years ago. "We knew we had a good name. We knew we had a good product. And, so far, it has worked. The last two years we've used our flour mills' capabilities to really launch us in a lot of different directions."

Even if you haven't bought Washington flour, you've proba-bly eaten Wilkins-Rogers grain as chicken breading at a local KFC restaurant or as a private-label brand in Food Lion or another grocer.

Other than in food brokers' magazines, Wilkins-Rogers does almost no advertising. Instead of spending millions to push its brands and then padding prices to compensate, it keeps prices low and relies on brand heritage and word-of-mouth promotion.

"That's the only way a smaller company like us can survive against the major brands," Mr. Everett said. "We've always had everyday low prices. We do very little advertising. Most of our promotional dollars are given right back to the consumer in the form of low prices."

Wilkins-Rogers' products go from Boston to Florida to Pittsburgh, but most are sold in Maryland and nearby. All the Ellicott City plant's products are kosher, and rabbis inspect the premises regularly.

About one third of its goods go into retail brands, a third to commercial bakers and a third to restaurants.

The Maryland company concentrates on "soft" cake wheat, a less competitive market than bread wheat.

Wilkins-Rogers once was in Georgetown in the District of Columbia. But "yuppie-ism" pushed it out, Mr. Everett said, and it moved into the Ellicott City facility, which it bought from a doughnut company, in the early 1970s. The company is still owned by the Rogers family. Samuel H. Rogers Jr. is chairman.

Last year, Mr. Zembala steered members of the Society for Industrial Archaeology on a tour of Wilkins-Rogers' Ellicott City plant, which is no longer using water power and grindstones.

The company has spent millions over the years in Ellicott City and on its Mount Joy, Pa., plant, which mills much of the flour for pretzels made in that state. Gone is the mill's old gravity-fed system that required a vertical layout.

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