In Denver, Colorado – the company’s headquarters, though it has mills and grain elevators in several states – Ardent Mills creates high-altitude wheat flour in the former Eagle Mill space. ‘Pride of the Rockies’ was the original mill’s tagline. Its new tenant adheres to that mentality, but Dye said the neighborhood (downtown Denver) has changed.
“While we’ve got a great history [and] a great heritage… the fact is the pace of change has never been more rapid,” he told reporters at a press conference at IBIE held in Las Vegas last month. “We’re changing with the very change in our very neighborhood. Things are changing around us very rapidly; we have to change as well.”
Technology has sped up innovation and enhanced consumer awareness. Dye stressed social media’s impact on food and why it matters to companies as back-end as Ardent Mills.
“Some people don’t like that because it’s driving change, but I think it’s really important.”
To keep up, Ardent Mills launched The Annex in 2018, its more experimental arm that handles heirloom grains like emmer, einkorn and spelt. It already began an expansion and improvement project on its Denver mill to increase capacity as more manufacturers ask for these hard-to-find products.
Dye said those capabilities will not only serve bakers and snack producers across the US, but it will also directly serve Denver and nearby Boulder – home to a host of health-focused food brands.
“We can’t run that flour mill the same way it was; we have to adjust to our environment.”
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Dye noted the growth of fiber, gut health and ‘zero net carb’ (where the amount of fiber in a bread, for instance, nutritionally offsets the carbohydrates) as rising trends.
To that end, Ardent Mills has launched products to meet those needs, including:
- Primo Molino, its US-produced semolina pizza flour;
- SustaGrain, a high-fiber barley;
- Colorado quinoa, which offers manufacturers a resource for an in-demand ingredient typically imported from South America.
The company focuses on ancient grains, heirloom wheats and pulses.
According to an internal survey on consumer behavior, The Annex found Americans continue to take control of their own health and food choices. They want convenience, but they also want what Dye called ‘a wholesome story.’
The conundrum for food manufacturers lies in the inherent contradiction of health versus convenience: how can the industry give consumers both at the same time? Dye sees Ardent Mills – and other grain suppliers – playing an important role in finding those solutions.
“It’s important to just step back a little bit and recognize that this is changing rapidly, and for the flour milling industry, it’s having an impact,” he said. “We have to recognize that and understand that.”
In addition to updating its Denver facility, Ardent Mills has closed four mills this year, eliminating redundancies and, said Dye, accepting that “demand has shifted, from flat to decreasing.”
That doesn’t mean mills or flour or bread are obsolete. Instead, it means they must embrace these changes and act upon them.
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“Sometimes people think flour is flour,” said Dye, countering that Ardent Mills alone makes more than two dozen varieties. “There is innovation happening even in the core flour business.”
Interestingly, he added, wholewheat flours have yet to have the impact the industry expected – despite increased interest in fiber and protein across the board.
The majority of the US does not eat enough whole grains. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), whole grains account for less than 20% of the average adult’s daily total grains intake. Dietary guidelines suggest that number should be closer to 50%.
“We would have expected whole wheat to be stronger than it is,” admitted Dye, who sees that trend shifting over time. The CDC reported a minor uptick in 2016 compared to previous levels.
Ardent Mills has seen rising tides for other ancient grains, though, such as semolina and durum wheat. The company works with US farmers growing these varieties that typically are imported from Italy to make authentic Neapolitan pizza. Ardent Mills version is less expensive because it’s grown domestically, and producers can capitalize on that marketing message, too.
The supplier has also seen renewed interest in its white wholewheat flour (Ultragrain), which it has offered for more than a decade. It retains the benefits of standard wholewheat flour but with the “look, feel and flavor of traditional white flour,” explained Dye, making it popular for school lunch programs, for instance.
Agility is everything for Ardent Mills and grain industry
Ardent Mills was spun out of a collaboration between Conagra, CHS, Horizon Milling and Cargill. From the outset, it focused on innovating in a largely stagnant industry.
At IBIE, Dye stressed the importance of “finding those pockets of growth,” especially as the demand dips for traditional flours.
“We have to be more agile. We have to drive change in different ways,” he said.
In addition to updating its growing portfolio and renovating its Denver mill, it sold its Tampa mill, though the company is building a modern, more efficient replacement in a nearby town.
Asked specifically about the benefit of building a mill today, versus renovating a dated factory, Dye and Don Trouba, who leads The Annex and its specialty grain offerings, put it this way: “We can build, we can buy, or we can repurpose."
In every decision, the company is looking for flexibility, they said – whether that means expanding the mill’s footprint or adding a new line to run a different grain in the space available.
From an administrative standpoint, that has also meant rearranging the corporate structure. Ardent Mills will soon be replacing the role of chief operating officer (COO) with a chief growth officer – following similar moves by many other major CPG companies.
That hire will likely come from outside the company, Dye said. “We feel we’re at a time where we need new perspective – fresh looks from a different angle.”