Store shelves were looking bleak and empty in late March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. From meat products to your basic necessities, like toilet paper, milk and eggs and – flour. But Bob Morando, CEO of Farmers Direct Foods in New Cambria, Kansas, was ready to rise to the challenge.
“All of a sudden people started making phone calls to my personal phone saying, ‘Hey, we’re at the grocery store and there’s no flour. What’s going on?’ And I’m like, that’s a good question, what is going on?,” he said.
After the initial shock of Covid, Morando met with his staff and strategically planned out their next moves. At the time, there were only four production members in the mill and three in the office when the insanity began to break loose.
“King Arthur, our largest customer, just called and said they needed us to double production,” Morando said. “I told my staff, ‘Look guys, let me tell you, we’re going to make the food. King Arthur wants the product, local people are calling, everybody’s hunkering down; and I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s going to be bad. There’s going to be a panic. Whether it’s real or not, people are panicking. So we better make the food because no matter what happens, people need to eat. “So let’s do it !””
Morando and his staff immediately began working extra hours as everyone was stocking up on groceries. In order to keep up with demand, the single-level 10,000 square foot facility nearly doubled production in just a couple of weeks.
“We usually make about 10,000,000 pounds of flour a year, so this year making over 20 million is a true double. We went from running a single shift 5 days a week to running two shifts roughly six days a week,” Morando said.
March, April and May were a blur for Morando and his staff. Along with doubling production, Morando would make personal trips to deliver bags of flour to bakeries, restaurants and charity’s.
“I’d take an extra dozen bags of flour to these bakeries and I’d stack them up in the front lobby where they would sell them directly to the public. No one knew where to find flour in March and April — it was just crazy. People were coming down to the mill to buy directly from us. It was very chaotic, I just have to say,” he laughed.
Not knowing how long the pandemic would last, Morando called in back up.
“If we started losing people from this sickness, we would’ve had to shut down. There’s only four people in the plant and each job is critical. I knew I could go in and sub for someone or my plant manager, Justin Howie, could sub in because we are both Milling Science graduates from KSU ourselves, but if we started losing any more, we would’ve had to shut down,” he said.
Due to the sophisticated nature of mill jobs, Morando couldn’t hire just anyone off the street to fill in. So he looked to the only Milling school in the world at Kansas State University.
“You have to know how to be a miller. You have to know how the wheat milling process really works, how the sifters work and the bagging lines. They’re not just rent-a-temp and fill these jobs. We reached out to K-State and there was a couple of young ladies who were May Graduates and had full-time jobs in June. School had shut down for the pandemic. They sent me their resumes and I said, ‘you’re perfect, come on over and start,’” he explained. Within a week they were on the job creating a second shift, and within 2 weeks the K-State students knew how to run our mill like the back of their hand.
Thanks to Jaylee Jenson, Nelsa Beckman and Harper Zonker of KSU, the mill was able to overcome the odds and keep store shelves stocked of flour. Along with the help from K-State students, Morando also brought in a few retired former milling employees part time to help the process.
Working in a flour mill already calls for extreme hygiene, but Morando had one rule for their facility to continue production safely.
“If my staff was sick, they had to stay home. If you get sick, just call in no questions asked and we’ll keep running as long as we can. That was the game plan,” he explained.
Being a food grade plant, sanitation was nothing new for Morando and his staff as they were already keeping the mill sanitized for safety and health reasons. The staff upped their cleaning frequency by sanitizing every hour and washing their hands more frequently. Morando’s first call in the morning everyday was to check on his staff making sure everyone was healthy.
“We trusted each other. Everyone has been here three plus years, so I knew I had good, honest people that wouldn’t make excuses if they were sick,” he said. While Morando knew his staff was already keeping things tidy inside the mill, outsiders coming into the plant weighed on his mind.
“We were already washing our hands five times a day in and out of the plant. We already wore a facemask because we wear dust masks due to the dusty environment. The only thing we had to worry about was the truckers coming in from all over the country to ship finished goods,” he explained. “We were restricting these interactions to just one person who was interfacing with those people and used just one pen, clipboard and countertop – which we sanitized after every interaction.
Morando isn’t afraid of a challenge. He knew food had to be made during this pandemic and that it wasn’t going to show up on the shelves on its own. So he and his team prepared for battle each day by working long days, weeks and months at the mill to make sure consumers were seeing full shelves at the grocery stores.
“I was humbled by this Kansas Ag Hero award. I didn’t do it to win an award. I just knew we had to do it. It wasn’t a matter of if the government said we were or weren’t essential workers; I just knew we had to. My pride came from taking our people from fear to we’re going to do it. Knowing what our game plan was and then executing our game plan,” he said.
Working with the K-State students reminded Morando why he continues his career in food science and milling.
“I really enjoyed getting those kids in there and teaching them some lessons about life and milling. They also got to see what it looks like to stand in the face of a storm when most people are running, hiding and ducking for shelter. That’s what we’re proud of, everybody stood their ground and took the right precautions,” he said.
Now that the dust has settled, Morando is happy to look back and analyze the success of the mill.
“Now people know who we are. They had kind of heard there was the little flour mill out there in New Cambria. People not only write articles about us now, but our social media presence has grown tremendously. We’ve really become a local community player and people say we want to buy from you now,” Morando said. “We have several commercial at-home bakers who do farmers markets coming to us now too. This is really taking off for us. When I say our business has doubled, it has not let up at all and I don’t think it will let up until after Christmas.”