On an October afternoon at the King Arthur Flour headquarters in Norwich, Vermont, head baker Martin Philip is making a galette. Buttery dough covers his hands as he presses the crust over sliced apples, picked from a nearby orchard. It’s peak foliage season, one of the employee-owned company’s busiest times of year, and the King Arthur flagship is bustling with leaf peepers who’ve come to snack on fresh-baked almond cloud cookies at the café, shop for specialty cake pans in the retail store, or take a class at the renowned baking school. A small crowd watches Philip at work through the bakery’s school-bus-sized windows, but the audience doesn’t rattle him. “I forget they’re there all the time,” he says with a laugh.
A former opera singer and investment banker, Philip, 49, fled New York City for King Arthur’s carbohydrate Camelot (the internal name for the company’s verdant 14-acre campus) 13 years ago. Now, when he’s not making croissants or sourdough loaves for the King Arthur Flour Café, he’s meeting with farmers or attending baking expos as an ambassador for the company’s core mission: to educate and inspire bakers—and convert them to customers. “For a long time, flour was seen as generic,” he says. “But if you’re a person who wants to get close to baking, we have great ingredients and a corporate culture that you can stand behind.”
Founded in Boston in 1790—just 14 years after the ink had dried on the Declaration of Independence—King Arthur Flour was started by merchant Henry Wood as an import business, shipping flour from England to the new nation’s 13 states. The company began milling domestic wheat in 1825 and soon stopped importing flour from overseas. The King Arthur name and knight-on-horseback logo weren’t introduced until 1896, after George Wood (no relation to Henry), then the co-owner, was so inspired by a performance of the musical Knights of the Round Table that he and partners Mark Taylor and Orin Sands named their firm after the Arthurian tenets they aspired to. “The values of purity and strength really spoke to them,” explains Karen Colberg, one of the company’s two CEOs.
Colberg, a 54-year-old lifelong baker and former Gap executive who focuses on marketing and product development, is seated at a pastry-laden table in a Camelot conference room. Beside her is co-CEO Ralph Carlton, 64, a Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola alum who also serves as King Arthur’s CFO and takes the lead on operations and finance. “Because we’re employee-owned, we’ve had the ability to try different things,” Colberg says of the company’s leadership structure. “I think it works because of our approach to both who we are as human beings and our personal approach to our roles.”
Colberg and Carlton (and their former co-CEO Suzanne McDowell, who stepped down in the fall) followed Steve Voigt, who served as the sole CEO for 15 years. After taking the helm in 1999, Voigt helped the company expand its national presence and transition to employee ownership. (The sale from fifth-generation owner Frank Sands and his wife, Brinna, went through in 2004.) On a strategic level, employee ownership means that decisions about King Arthur’s future are made by its 370 workers, rather than a boardroom. On a more personal level, it means that after a year on the job, workers start to earn stock in the company, which can provide a comfy nest egg for retirement. Monthly staff-wide town hall meetings further encourage transparency and camaraderie. “It sounds hokey... but the behavioral aspect of ownership really makes a difference,” Carlton says. “It influences everything you do. It glues people together.”
In 2007, King Arthur’s employees voted to become a founding Certified B Corporation, joining companies like Seventh Generation and Numi Organic Tea in committing to a set of rigorous ethical and environmental standards. At King Arthur, this translates to initiatives like using 100 percent recyclable flour bags, offering its free Bake for Good education program to more than 200 schools every year, and providing solar-powered charging stations for electric vehicles. Most recently, in August, the company raised its minimum wage from $12.50 to $15 an hour (on January 1st, Vermont’s minimum wage will rise to $10.96). “It’s a step in the right direction,” Colberg says. “Ideally, someone making $15 an hour can support themselves.”
As Colberg and Carlton chart a course for King Arthur’s next 50 years, they’re starting from a position of strength. Flour remains the company’s largest product category and a major driver of annual sales, which recently exceeded $150 million and have grown every year for the past five years. The company is a top-four player in the competitive global wheat flour market, ahead of General Mills–owned Gold Medal and artisanal competitor Bob’s Red Mill.
While the largest portion of King Arthur’s sales are made to home bakers at the supermarket and through other retailers, the company’s commitment to quality has cemented its credibility with professional bakers like Cronut inventor Dominique Ansel and Martha Stewart. King Arthur has stayed true to its “never bleached, never bromated” mantra (some studies have linked bromate, a dough-stiffening chemical that reduces mixing time, to cancer) and holds the mills that process its flour to a slim 0.2 percent margin of error for protein content, which affects how much a dough will rise. Evolving with American tastes, King Arthur has also become a leader in the gluten-free market, with gluten-free flours and baking mixes now making up one-fifth of total annual sales.
Currently, the company is focused on reaching millennials, many of whom are starting families—a “life transition where baking might take off,” Colberg explains—with a mouthwatering Instagram account featuring recipes for buttermilk granola muffins and deep-dish pizza, and a 35,200-subscriber-strong YouTube channel. Its Baker’s Hotline is staffed with savvy operators who can help fix crumbled cookies and soggy loaves of bread. “Being connected to consumers is one of our most valuable assets,” says Colberg, who has advocated for building a deeper rapport with the company’s customers. “We want to be their friend in the kitchen.”
King Arthur also tries to use its buying power to ensure its Midwestern farming partners strive for water and energy conservation. “How farmers grow matters to us a lot,” Carlton says. “We want to use our clout to make sure farming practices are heading in the right direction for more than just our customers but also for the planet.” Adds Colberg: “You’ve got to take care of the people and the planet. Taking care of those two will help take care of the profit.”
Back in the bakery, Martin Philip pauses his pastry making to think back to what first drew him to King Arthur. “I wanted to do something more tangible,” he says. “Food is a great tool for talking to people.”