The baking aisles have been raided. The bulk sections are closed. A sign at Fred Meyer declares customers may buy no more than two bags of flour at once, a stricter limit than even hand sanitizer and liquid soap. Web storefronts warn some items may be unavailable.
Are we running out of flour?
“We’re not seeing any shortages of raw materials,” says Matthew Cox, vice president of marketing at Milwaukie-based Bob’s Red Mill, “but the dramatic increase in orders has led to some of our most popular items being temporarily unavailable.”
“We have the wheat stocked to supply us,” says Nicky Giusto, head of technical support at Utah-based Central Milling. “We always do. We’re always prepared going into every year, with plenty of carryover for just in case. This is not our first catastrophe we’ve dealt with,” Giusto adds of the 150-year-old company. “It’s our fourth or fifth. We’ve seen a lot of things like this, and we’re always prepared for it at one level or another.”
“Our plants are safely running at full capacity to support the needs of our retailers and consumers,” says Kelsey Roemhildt, a spokesperson for General Mills, which owns the Gold Medal Flour brand. “To support the demand, we are prioritizing several SKUs, but are confident that shipments to stores continue to flow and consumers will be able to find our flour on their shelves.”
The apparent unavailability and shipping delays, mill reps say, have more to do with how long it takes to process orders, and give them time to catch up with the increased demand. “We’re trying to control the flow so it doesn’t overwhelm and break our system,” says Giusto of the “temporarily unavailable” labels on Central Milling’s web storefront. “We only have a certain amount of people. We’d love to bring in more people, but we can’t—we can’t trust where people have been, and we don’t want to infect our staff. It’s a really difficult scalability situation. At times I didn’t put the reins on how much we were going to sell that day, we were getting around eight times [the orders] we normally do.”
“We’ve seen orders on our website more than double over the past few weeks,” Cox says of Bob’s Red Mill. “It’s been busier than the winter holiday season, which is usually our busiest time of the year.” Single-item bulk orders of flour, granola, and oats are big part of the surge, as are orders for yeast, beans, and lentils. The Milwaukie store is still open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with a limited number of customers allowed at a time. The on-site restaurant is closed, and Cox says its employees have been reassigned to the mill or the store.
“We get all of our flour from a couple of regional flour producers. We haven’t had any issues getting a supply of flour so far,” says Annie Moss, co-owner of NE Killingsworth’s Seastar Bakery and Handsome Pizza (and cofounder of a local whole-grain bakers guild). Moss has had to lay off her staff, while she and her partners are trying very limited pizza takeout hours and have been selling some of their extra ingredients, including suddenly precious flour, as they prep an online marketplace for products like muffin mixes and pizza kits.
“What we heard from a lot of people coming by to get bread and flour was there’s no flour in the grocery stores and there’s no bread in the grocery stores,” says Moss. “There are a couple of things at work: Yes, places are running out, so people are wanting to buy those things from us. I also think that people who are working from home who may have had an interest in bread or baking at home are now finding themselves with time to actually do that,” Moss adds. “Bread is such a staple food, and I also think it’s important to people to feel self-sufficient. I think people are having a feeling of needing to know that their bases are covered, their pantry is stocked.” (Moss has felt the self-sufficiency urge herself: “I just ordered a bunch of fabric through my favorite local fabric store, Bolt, and they said a lot of people are reaching out to them being like, I want to starting making my own clothes now—because now we live in the 1800s again,” she says with a laugh.)
“With shelter-in-place areas, there are more people at home who need something to do, so they’re baking,” Giusto says of the surge in orders from all over the country at Central Milling. “Artisan baking flour is going to the larger city populations. All-purpose flour is going to more midwestern locations. Whole-wheat flour has been holding steady, kind of going everywhere. Whole berries have been going to more food storage areas, places where people store food, like those with Mormon or Mennonite populations. Utah’s been really heavy, Idaho’s been really heavy. It all depends on the product and what people are freaked out about.”
For people stuck at home with the baking bug, Moss suggests starting with something easy, like flatbreads, crackers, or even pancakes. “Making your own bread is very, very rewarding and awesome and fun and wonderful, but it also can be intimidating. Start with something that is comforting and familiar to you so that you have a sense of the outcome, and you can kind of get into the rhythm of being in the kitchen and baking.”
The results are worth it. Says Giusto of his company and of wheat farmers, millers, distributors, and grocers in general: “We’re going to help people get through this with a smile on their face and warm bread coming out of their oven.”