Inside the Flour Company Supplying America’s Sudden Baking Obsession
How King Arthur Flour found itself in the unlikely crosshairs of a pandemic
Baking bread was a regular family affair in Linda Ely’s childhood home, leaving her with a lifelong bread-baking habit and some powerful memories. “I think of my family every single time I bake,” she says.
Ely has been able to pay some of that gift forward to the thousands of people she has advised over the Baker’s Hotline run by the company she works for — and is to a tiny degree a part-owner of — King Arthur Flour. Most of the people who call with bread-baking questions already know a thing or two about the craft themselves, but want to check on some of the finer points for a particular project: Should you alter the hydration ratio if you’re using a mixture of white, whole wheat, and almond flour? How long can you keep the unbaked dough in the refrigerator if you want an extended rise? So tricky and specific are some of the bread-baking questions that even though Ely is one of the bread specialists working the hotline, she sometimes puts callers on hold and yells over the cubicle walls to colleagues for second opinions.
But in early March, Ely noticed a change in the questions. Partly it was an increase in the sheer number of calls, a jump that seemed more sudden and pronounced than the normal mild pre-Easter build-up. But even stranger was how many of the callers seemed, well, clueless. How do you tell if bread is done? Do I really need yeast? And strangest of all: What can I use instead of flour?
Ely and the other half-dozen or so hotline experts share an open office with the employees who take call-in orders from customers, and they, too, were getting a flood of odd calls. Namely, countless people were calling in to order as many as 10 of the company’s five-pound bags of flour at once. Who would need that much flour in their homes? “That was another data point that told us this wasn’t just the holiday build-up,” recalls Ely.
“I fired off a text to the sales team to check their figures,” says co-CEO Karen Colberg. “It was obviously some sort of mistake.” No mistake, came the reply.