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In the little town of Battle Creek, Michigan, the creation of the first flaked breakfast cereal is a story of sibling rivalry, a new church, and a health-food obsession. Few people know how two Michigan brothers invented and promoted Kellogg's Corn Flakes, one of the most popular cereals in America.
Will Keith Kellogg and John Harvey Kellogg were brothers from a Battle Creek, Michigan-based Seventh-day Adventist family. They had minimal education because their parents expected Christ's Second Coming to happen before they needed it, but John Harvey earned a medical degree.
He was a zealous proponent of 'biologic living,' which included vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol and cigarettes, no tea, coffee, or condiments, and only small amounts of eggs and dairy products.
The birth of the flake
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the renowned Battle Creek Sanitarium's director, was looking for simple, healthy foods that were nourishing but simpler to digest than bread. A patient showed the doctor shredded wheat. Kellogg was supposed to be fascinated, but the shredded wheat was disliked by the patients.
"We'll invent better food," he stated. Dr. Kellogg later revealed that he had a dream about compressing cooked wheat and flaking it. His experiments, however, were unsuccessful.
The doctor subsequently handed the experiments on to his brother, W.K. Kellogg. Kellogg would boil the wheat before rolling it through two eight-inch rollers and scraping the dough off with a chisel. That didn't seem to work either.
Mr. Kellogg, who was essentially in charge of the Sanitarium, was summoned away from the kitchen and didn't return until Saturday night. The mush was a little moldy, but the brothers decided to put it through the rollers again, and it came out in the form of huge, thin flakes, much to their amazement. Each wheat berry produced a single flake. The flakes were baked and turned out crisp and flavorful, if a little moldy.
The novel cereal flakes, dubbed Granose (a mix of "grain" and the scientific suffix "ose," or metabolism) by Dr. Kellogg, were a hit with the patients at the "San." J.H. decided to patent the flaked cereal process. Meanwhile, Will experimented with oat, barley, and maize flakes, which he served at the San on a regular basis. In fact, once they left the San, he had to create a tiny mail-order business to keep patients supplied.
Will was doing brisk business at 15 cents per ten-ounce box, selling 113,400 pounds of flakes in 1896, his first full year of outside sales. That was particularly impressive given the Kelloggs' policy of exclusively informing previous patients and Adventists about their product.
Will persuaded J. H. to promote flaked cereal on a large scale. Will was certain that selling breakfast flakes was a fantastic way to generate money while also promoting good health. J.H., on the other hand, considered the hazards were excessive. J.H. argued that such overt commercialism could jeopardize his prestigious medical reputation. In any event, he'd already established himself. Why would he stake his riches and his beautiful home on a risky bet with flaked cereals?
Will faced a difficult decision: should he stay with his brother and make a comfortable living, or should he take a chance and go into the flaked-cereal business? He decided to stay for a few more years.
Finally, J.H.'s tyrannical leadership aided Will's expulsion from the nest. Will experimented with adding sugar (officially "malt flavoring") to his flakes on one of J.H.'s foreign trips, which was highly forbidden at the San. Will also gathered funds and constructed a new food-processing plant to meet the increased demand for Kellogg's cereals.
J.H. was enraged when he returned home, condemning the usage of sugar at the San and ordering Will to pay for a portion of the new structure out of his own wallet. Will couldn't take any more abuse at that time. Will told his brother that if the San burned down in 1902, he would help him rebuild it and then walk out on his own.
The birth of W. K. Kellogg Company
Will Kellogg, at the age of 46, would finally become his own boss in 1906. Will, now that he was free of his brother, focused on the bright side. He had a lot of business experience. He could balance the numbers, run a business, and create and sell cereal on a small scale. Why not millions if thousands like flaked cereal?
Will began collecting the $200,000 start-up money from former San patients in a methodical and meticulous manner. Will pursued his aim of transforming the nation's breakfast traditions in 1906, with capital in hand. He became a spokesperson for flaked cereal while serving as a diplomat. Will had to give J.H. a majority of the company's equity to entice him to cooperate.
Will, the marketing genius
Will made the decision to bet everything on advertising. It became the most important expense in his budget. Because most grocers didn't carry his product, he couldn't ask readers to buy it. Instead, he distributed coupons for free samples and requested women to lobby their local supermarkets to carry Kellogg's corn flakes so that the coupons could be used.
He published a similar ad in 17 journals with nearly six million readers in October 1906. "The original bears this signature—W.K. Kellogg," read the headline on every new ad. Will was not conceited; he simply desired to distinguish himself from his brother and imitators.
Skeptics informed Will that unless he captured the New York market, his corn flakes would never become a national product. "Wednesday is 'Wink Day' in New York," he responded with a daring and risqué ad.
The grocers in New York will give away a box of Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes to every housewife who winks at them on Wednesday. On Wednesday, June 5, 1907, Will published the ads in all major New York newspapers for the first time. Will's monthly sales in New York increased from two to over thirty carloads thanks to the Wink Day campaign.
As he reached 70, he started to focus more on philanthropy than business. He admitted, "I never intended to become extraordinarily wealthy," but he had become one of America's wealthiest and most famous individuals. He donated around $50 million, or the majority of his money, into the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in the 1930s to help him organize his philanthropy.
Kellogg dominated his competitors by introducing new products such as Rice Krispies and All Bran; he improved the crunch and quality of corn flakes; and he improved his packaging and marketing.
Mr. Kellogg's company, despite its size and scope, continues to be significant to the world fifty years after his death. As of October 15, 2021, Kellogg's net worth is $21.06B with 31,000 employees. It acquired Keebler in 2001 for $3.87 billion, and Chicago-based food company Rxbar purchased it in 2017 for $654 million. It has also acquired Morningstar Farms and Kashi divisions or subsidiaries over the years. Bear Naked, Natural Touch, Cheez-It, Murray, Austin cookies and crackers, Famous Amos, Gardenburger (bought 2007), and Plantation are among Kellogg's other brands.
Kellogg's is currently a member of the World Cocoa Foundation. It also acquired the potato crisps brand Pringles from Procter & Gamble for $2.7 billion in cash in 2012, making it the world's second-largest snack food company (behind PepsiCo).
Will revolutionized people's breakfast habits all around the country, and his name became well-known. New York City was illuminated by his electric billboards. Corn flakes were consumed all across the world.
Will's achievement surprised some who thought of him as "J.H.'s flunkey." He'd always put in long hours and understood how to operate the San, but where did he get his audacity, ingenuity, and confidence? Will, now that he was no longer enslaved by his brother, demonstrated business abilities that few knew he possessed.
We can learn from him that when starting a new business, entrepreneurs do not always turn an abstract notion into reality. Sometimes people have a lucky break and come up with a great idea, which they subsequently develop into a commercial success.
His advertising boldness and cool leadership are admirable.