Bob Moore, founder and face of Bob’s Red Mill, dies at 94

Bob Moore, who became an amiable face of the natural foods industry as the bearded, bolo tie-wearing founder of Bob’s Red Mill, the whole-grain food brand known as a favorite of vegans, home bakers, health-food enthusiasts and gluten-free diners, died Feb. 10 at his home in Milwaukie, Ore., the former mill town where the company is based. He was 94.

A company spokeswoman confirmed his death but did not give a cause.

A folksy, almost Santa-like figure who often donned a red vest or coat, Mr. Moore was immediately recognizable to anyone who ever bought a package of Bob’s Red Mill barley, bulgur or buckwheat. An illustration of his face, gently smiling under a flat cap and wire-rimmed glasses, adorns each of the company’s more than 200 products, alongside a salutation that conveyed some of the onetime seminarian’s easygoing charm: “To Your Good Health.”

Under Mr. Moore and his wife, co-founder Charlee Moore, the private company grew from an artisanal Oregon business into a global empire of stone-ground grains, cereals and flours, with annual sales of “well over $100 million,” Mr. Moore told podcast host Guy Raz in 2018. The company went on a hiring spree in 2020, buoyed by a surge of interest in baking during the coronavirus pandemic, and says it now has more than 700 employees, with sales in more than 70 countries.

Mr. Moore, who retired as chief executive in 2018 and continued to serve on the board until his death, was initially hesitant to embrace the health-conscious approach that his brand promoted from its founding in 1978. He once thought that gluten-free dieters “were nuts,” he said, and was skeptical of his wife’s interest in books like “Let’s Get Well,” by nutritionist Adelle Davis.

But his father’s death from a heart attack at age 49, along with his wife’s experiments in whole-grain baking in the 1960s, began to pique his interest in healthy eating. “Our world needed better food, it needed whole grains,” he recalled in an episode of Raz’s podcast “How I Built This.”

While managing a J.C. Penney auto shop in Redding, Calif., Mr. Moore came across a library book, “John Goffe’s Mill,” in which Harvard anthropologist George Woodbury chronicled his attempts to restore a derelict mill that belonged to his family in New Hampshire. The book, with its evocative descriptions of traditional milling techniques and the glories of stone-ground flour and corn meal, inspired Mr. Moore to think that he might be able to run a mill of his own.

Mr. Moore began writing letters to millers across the country, seeking out antique equipment, and eventually acquired a few sets of 19th-century quartz millstones from a defunct mill in North Carolina. He went on to find modest success with his first milling company, Moores’ Flour Mill, which he founded in 1974 with his wife and two of his sons, working out of a vacant Quonset hut in Redding.

But a few years later, on the verge of turning 50, he decided to turn the milling business over to his children. He sold most of his possessions, moved to Portland, Ore., with his wife and enrolled at Western Evangelical Seminary, now part of George Fox University, where he sought to fulfill a long-held ambition of learning Hebrew and Greek so that he could read the Bible in two of its original languages.

“That was my goal in life, one hundred percent,” he said in an oral history for Oregon State University. “I gave myself over to it.”

Within six months, Mr. Moore was again seized by visions of stone-ground flour and grains. He and his wife were quizzing each other on Greek nouns and verbs, going over flashcards during a walk in nearby Milwaukie, a few miles south of downtown Portland, when they spotted an old mill and a “for sale” sign out front. Inside were bucket elevators and grain cleaners, along with virtually all of the milling equipment that Mr. Moore knew he needed to get started.

“I call it my emotional epiphany,” he told the Oregonian newspaper, recalling his first encounter with the building. “Whatever excuse I care to give, I was just sucked into it like a vortex.”

Using a set of 1870s millstones he acquired from another old mill, he soon launched Bob’s Red Mill. His wife did the bookwork and packaged many of the original products while Mr. Moore set to work promoting the business, getting on the evening news within a few weeks of opening the mill and filling the parking lot shortly after that.

The company grew with help from the Fred Meyer superstore chain, which began carrying its products in the Pacific Northwest. After a fire destroyed the mill in 1988 — an arsonist reportedly set the building ablaze — Mr. Moore moved the company into a larger plant in Milwaukie, expanding from about 18,000 to 60,000 square feet. Within a few years, the business was supplying wholesalers across the country. It started overseas sales in the early 2000s.

For years, Mr. Moore turned down prospective buyers, insisting on maintaining ownership of the company. In 2010, on his 81st birthday, he began transferring control to his staff through a new employee stock ownership plan. “The Bible says to do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” he later told Portland Monthly, explaining his belief that sharing profits and ownership would “make things more fair and more benevolent.”

Mr. Moore continued to come into the office daily, driving to work in one of his two 1931 Ford Model As, and sometimes played piano duets for visitors, performing Gershwin or Cole Porter songs with his executive assistant. More often he could be found checking the mill equipment, conducting product tests three times a day and singing the praises of old-fashioned techniques that he sought to marry with modern machinery.

“We built these machines,” he told The Washington Post in 2011, showing off the mill. “The others that existed, they screamed, got hot and went 94 miles per hour. I don’t live my life that way, and I don’t want my food that way.”

The older of two children, Robert Gene Moore was born in Portland on Feb. 15, 1929. He grew up in San Bernardino, Calif., where his father drove a truck selling Wonder Bread, according to the “How I Built This” podcast.

After graduating from high school, Mr. Moore served three years in the Army, helping build roads and bridges on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where the military conducted nuclear testing. He returned home to work as an electronics technician and married Charlee Lu Coote in 1953, a year after they met on a blind date.

Mr. Moore ran service stations in Gardena and Mammoth Lakes, Calif., before relocating to Sacramento, where he sold lawn mowers and hardware supplies at a Sears. For a time, he and his family lived on a five-acre goat farm, where Charlee baked with whole grains, raised chickens and tended to a garden. Mr. Moore described it as “heaven on earth.”

He and his wife later set aside $30 million to launch two academic hubs, the Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health at Oregon State University in Corvallis and the Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition and Wellness at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

Charlee died in 2018. Survivors include their three sons, Ken, Bob Jr. and David; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

At age 87, Mr. Moore traveled to the village of Carrbridge, in the Scottish Highlands, where he won the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship using a batch of his company’s steel cut oats. The honor was for a traditional porridge, made only with oats, water and salt, although Portland Monthly reported that Mr. Moore preferred to make a few concessions to modernity, preparing his daily oats with “flaxseed meal, walnuts, sliced banana, turbinado sugar, and skim milk.”


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