Snap, Crackle and Profit -- the story behind a cereal empire

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg fills in George Bernard Shaw on the importance of cultured milk to a healthy diet. Shaw stopped in Battle Creek during a 1936 world tour.

Religion and the American search for short-cuts to health helped create Battle Creek’s giant cereal industry, which at one time boasted more than 40 manufacturers.

The religion came from the Seventh Day Adventists who settled in great numbers in Battle Creek more than a century ago. The Adventists, sincere and dedicated fundamentalists, observed the Sabbath on Saturday and believed in the Second Coming. They refused to eat meat or drink alcoholic beverages and stressed healthful eating habits at a time when Americans sought dietary programs as a panacea for illness and death.

Dr. John H. Kellogg, left, and his younger brother, William K. Kellogg.

      A century ago there were no canned foods and little refrigeration and only a meager knowledge of nutrition. There were no antibiotics or wonder drugs to fight infection.

Early Michigan residents ate monotonous meals of meat, which could be easily preserved in several ways. They baked bread over open fires without yeast but their diets lacked grains, fresh fruit and vegetables.

A remarkable Adventist leader, Ellen G. White, saw a chance to expand the order through a better health campaign. In September 1866 she opened the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek which offered Adventist theology, health foods such as oatmeal, and plenty of open-air exercise.

The institute attracted patrons in droves, but few made repeat visits. Clients refused to take her doctors and their correspondence-school degrees seriously. They wanted educated physicians with real medical degrees.

Sister White realized she needed to market her program, so she selected a serious-minded youth from her congregation named John Harvey Kellogg, a native of Battle Creek and son of a broommaker. She paid for his education at the University of Michigan and then sent him to study at Bellevue Hospital in New York, paying him a salary while he was there.

While in New York, Kellogg would breakfast on seven graham crackers and an apple, one coconut a week and an occasional side dish of pototoes or oatmeal. “My cooking facilities were very limited”, he wrote later. “It was difficult to prepare cereals. It often occurred to me that it should be possible to purchase cereals at groceries already cooked and ready to eat, and I considered different ways in which this might be done.”

Kelloggs workers pose on a Toasted Corn Flakes delivery truck early in the Twentieth Century.

      In 1876, after six months study, the now Doctor Kellogg returned to Battle Creek and took over the administration of the failing Adventist hospital.

Although Dr. Kellogg stood only five feet four inches tall, his mesmorizing power of persuasion sprang from his inventiveness and a P.T. Barnum enthusiasm for promotion.

He advised patients, “Eat what the monkey eats — simple food and not too much of it.”

Kellogg considered the colon central to good health. He lectured on the theory of “autointoxication”, a self-poisoning caused by the too-slow breakdown of food in the intestines and colon. He preached a vegetarian diet, exercise, and frequent bowel movements. “A housebroken colon is a damaged colon,” he warned.

Over the next few years he attracted a formidable array of visitors to his facility, renamed the Battle Creek Sanitarium or “San.” These included auto baron Henry Ford, retailers J.C. Penney and S.S.Kresge, actress Sarah Berhardt, explorer Richard Byrd, inventor Thomas Edison, industrialist Harvey Firestone, President William Howard Taft, and aviator Amelia Earhart.

Kellogg provided his patients with plans to readjust their diet and lifestyle in order to return to good health. Some of his health and fitness regimes seemed unusual — like exercising in athletic diapers, or multiple daily enemas, or dunks into electrified water pools. Others made more sense. He promoted a vegetarian diet, including yogurt and tofu. He preached the value of aerobic exercise using recorded music.

One of his first marketing successes in the health food field was Granola. He pushed peanut butter and invented a mechanical horse for exercising.

William K. Kellogg developed a process for turning the grain into flakes. Here he inspects the machinery in his new corn flakes factory.

      Over the next few years he put many new items on the market under catchy names, organizing a new company for each one. Some were substitutes for meat, others for coffee. Packaged in brightly colored boxes and easy to prepare, these foods were instant successes. The growing popularity of his products caused Dr. Kellogg to hire his younger brother, William K., as business manager.

Eight years younger than John, Will had for years toiled in his successful elder brother’s shadow. One story has Will taking notes while trotting alongside his brother who was bicycling in great circles in front of the sanitarium.

John Kellogg always insisted he only wanted to improve the health of his patients, not profit from the health business. “It is exceedingly distasteful to me to have my name associated with the food business or with anything commercial — but we sometimes have to swallow bitter pills.”

Always seeking new substitutes for animal products, the brothers one day discovered that wheat could be flaked. Instead of pulverizing the wheat into a flour, they steamed it and ran it between heavy rollers that squeezed the grain into flakes.

The guests at the sanitarium loved the product and soon everyone was clamoring for it.

As a service to former patients, Dr. Kellogg started the Sanitas Nut Food Company. He put his younger brother in charge of the business to produce the cereal for mail orders. Entrepreneurs quickly copied the process and began selling their own flaked wheat cereals. By 1902, more than 40 cereal factories sprang up in the shadow of the San.

By 1919 the manufacturing of corn flakes had become a huge industry, as evidenced by this photo of the Kelloggs plant in Battle Creek. A small steam locomotive shunts boxcars on the plant’s railroad siding.

      Meanwhile, Will continued his own experiments, developing a process for flaking corn in 1898. Seeing the potential of cereal products, and recognizing his brother’s lack of interest in expanding their own food company, Will left to go into business for himself. On February 19, 1906, The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company organized. The business was later renamed Kellogg Company.

He took corn flake and made it the company’s biggest item, packaging it in a gay box bearing the slogan: “The Genuine Bears This Signature — W.K.Kellogg.”

From the beginning, the public liked Corn Flakes. Soon after opening the original plant was turning out 1,000 cases a day. Less than a year later, production was four times that. A second plant started operation but still could not fill the demand.

Back orders piled up and Mr. Kellogg ran “apology” ads in national magazines asking customers to “stop buying, and give your neighbor a chance.” Ironically these “apology” ads caused more orders to pour into Battle Creek.

A bitter feud erupted between the brothers when Will gained sole rights to market products of the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Co.

In later years, Will Kellogg bought out all his brother’s interest in the business, scrapping some of the products and retaining only those he thought profitable.

This plaque marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the W.K. Kellogg Company in Battle Creek.

      At one time as many as 44 food companies attempted to compete with Kelloggs. One that did well was the C.W.Post Co., organized by Charles W. Post in 1895. Post had gone to Battle Creek in a wheel-chair to be patient in Dr. Kellogg’s sanitarium. Cured of his ailments, he remained to make millions out of pre-cooked foods.

He followed the trail blazed by the feuding Kelloggs, but his genius for advertising made Postum a popular national drink in campaign that warned drinking coffee was dangerous to health.

He promoted Post Toasties until his product nearly rivaled the Kellogg Corn Flakes. He bought the rights to Grape-Nuts from a small company and made it an international favorite.

The Post and Kellogg companies grew up on the same side of Battle Creek and competed bitterly. Post employes would not associate with Kellogg workers, and for years the semi professional baseball teams maintained by each company could not play against each other because police feared rioting.

After Post’s death, his company joined the Jell-O Company, in the first of a series of mergers which led to the development of the General Foods Corp.

Will Kellogg and his company remained independent. His name often appeared in the news because of his involvment in charity projects. He provided his community with a municipal auditorium, two schools, a youth center and the city’s first airport.

He gave a bird sanctuary at Wintergreen Lake in southwestern Midchigan and a beautiful forest preserve to the public.

One of his principal interests, The Kellogg Foundation, a philanthropic group he organized in 1930, operated from a trust fund composed of Kellogg stock

In 1939, at age 79, Will retired from the everyday operations of the company remained as chairman of the board.

John Kellogg remained true to nearly all of his health theories. He died of pneumonia Dec.14, 1943 at age 91. Will died eight years later on Oct. 7,1951, also at the age of 91.

Kellogg remains Battle Creek’s biggest single employer and despite changes in the breakfast eating habits of Americans still retains 45 percent of the world cereal market.

The Kellogg Company in 1989.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)

By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News