The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

“You need more fiber in your diet,” my doctor said. I heard him, but, as is often the case in Japan, obtaining the desired food locally wasn’t easy. For a while, a nearby branch of Seijo Ishii sold an oatmeal-oat bran mix from the United Kingdom that I liked and was easy to prepare. But sales were soon discontinued due to complaints over quality. Then I found oat bran flakes from Ireland, sold at Kinokuniya; but these suffered the same fate.

Around the middle of this decade, big changes took place in the Japanese market for cold cereals—particularly granola. Although domestic supermarket chains stocked various brands, nearly all were marketed as a confection rather than a health food because they were presweetened. Ultimately, I found myself still obliged when returning from overseas to stuff my baggage with as much oat bran as Delta Air Lines would allow.

That changed in July 2016 when, while visiting Portland, OR, I discovered Bob’s Red Mill grain products. By year-end my stock was nearing depletion. In desperation, I went to the Bob’s Red Mill website, which appeared to accept orders from overseas.

“Wait,” the regional sales manager responded, “We’re just about to start sales in Japan.” Bob’s, it seems, had tied up with Ebisu-based trader Upperleft Co., which had just arranged for a variety of hot and cold breakfast cereals and baking ingredients to be sold at National Azabu, a supermarket in Hiroo coveted by Tokyo’s expat community.

I soon hustled over for a look-see and staggered home under the weight of several large packages of Bob’s products.

For those lacking the ability to transport bulky packages, several dozen items can now be purchased online from health food suppliers and Amazon Japan.

Although Bob’s products are popular among US expat communities in other parts of Asia—including China, the Philippines, Singapore, and Hong Kong—the brand was a relative latecomer to Japan. I wondered why.

“Import regulations kept us away from Japan in the past,” explained former Chief Operations Officer Dennis Vaughn, who succeeded Bob Moore as chief executive officer on August 1. “But we found a great partner in Japan that has been able to work through these challenges and get our products into the Japanese market.”

The Milwaukie, Oregon-based company has an interesting history. In 1978, Bob Moore and his wife Charlee moved to the Portland area after he retired from his job in California. Fascinated by traditional milling methods that date back to Biblical times, he set out to revive stone-grinding as a hobby. Inspired by Charlee, a strong believer in the nutritional value of eating unprocessed whole grains, Bob’s first product was whole-wheat flour.

This interest in old-fashioned milling equipment led to the founding of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, and a major breakthrough early in the company’s history helped it establish a strong regional presence.

“Back in 1982, Fred Meyer, a local Pacific Northwest chain that’s now part of [national grocer] Kroger, wanted to work with us because we had high-quality products and we could also meet customer demand,” Vaughn explained. “It was a huge success. They awarded us their Supplier of the Year honor in 1983, and we work closely with them to this day with promotions and events such as their Corporate Wellness Fair.”

It was to take another two decades, however, before Bob’s Red Mill began emerging on the national scene.

“We were happy to be a thriving local business, but when we started advertising nationally sales really started to soar,” said Vaughn. “Our advertising includes television commercials and print ads in national magazines such as The Pioneer Woman and Food Network Magazine, as well as regional magazines such as Portland Monthly and Seattle Magazine. We also reach tens of thousands of people each month through our digital ad campaigns, which include display advertising, videos, and outreach on social media sites such as YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and others.

“Here in Portland, you can see Bob’s Red Mill pretty much wherever you go, thanks to the beautiful billboards we put together with our ad agency Grady Britton.”

Demand for breakfast cereals in the United States has undergone major shifts over the past decades. Vaughn pointed out that, while the company positions itself as a producer of natural foods, “More and more people want to know and recognize where their food comes from, and natural foods have joined the mainstream.

“We joke that back in the 1970s, when we began, whole-wheat flour was an ‘alternative’ flour,” Vaughn added. “Today, it’s a commonplace ingredient in pantries worldwide. Our customer base has definitely grown to include the everyday shopper. As awareness of whole grain, gluten-free, vegan, and other specialty diets grows, these niche products have joined the mainstream.”

Gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease, is an autoimmune disorder said to affect about one in 133 Americans that can occur at any age. Vaughn said that the gluten-free movement has ended up expanding everyone’s diets and has introduced people to new and flavorful possibilities.

“The growing popularity of gluten-free eating has inspired all kinds of new and alternative products, such as coconut flour, almond flour, and gluten-free flour blends, in addition to gluten-free versions of existing foods, such as oatmeal and granola. However, products such as almond flour are more than just a substitute for wheat flour; they have their own unique properties and are used in delicious dishes that everyone can enjoy.”

According to Vaughn, varieties of oatmeal remain the company’s strongest sellers.

“They are extremely popular, in part because we have some­thing for everyone: rolled, steel cut, and Scottish, which is a stone-ground porridge. We also have varieties that are gluten-free, organic, and even organic plus gluten-free together. We recently debuted single-serve oatmeal cups in a variety of flavors, and they’ve been a great success story for us.”

The company’s most recent claim to fame was taking first place at the World Porridge Making Championship in Scotland—for the second time.

“We first entered the World Porridge Making Championship in Scotland in 2009,” said Vaughn. “We were very confident about the quality and flavor of our oats, but Scotland invented oatmeal. So, we were up against some tough competition. We were thrilled when we won the coveted Golden Spurtle that year. We were the first Americans to win the honor of making the best porridge in the world. We’ve since repeated that success in 2016, when Bob Moore went there in person and took home the grand prize.

“That definitely raised our profile internationally, but it was also a testament to all of the people at Bob’s Red Mill who work hard to create our premium oats—now known officially as our World Champion Oatmeal®.”

On Bob Moore’s 81st birthday, in 2010, he surprised all his employees with a special gift: an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) that made everyone an employee-owner.

“There’s a motto here: Keep Portland Weird,” Vaughn quipped. “A lot of people were surprised when Bob gave the company to his employees instead of selling to a big corpora­tion.

They thought it was a little weird! And we’re happy to own that.”
According to Vaughn, Oregon’s favorable reputation abroad has been instrumental in promoting the company’s products outside the United States. Bob’s exports to some 70 countries.

“Oregon is an important part of the fabric of Bob’s Red Mill. The pioneer spirit, the do-it-yourself ethos are perfectly in line with our company’s mission to bring the highest-quality foods to people around the world. We still grind our whole grains on centuries-old quartz millstones that we sharpen by hand. A lot of the machinery and equipment we use was designed by Bob himself.”

Vaughn also credited promotional activities by his state’s department of commerce, which, he added, “has been very useful matching us with buyers overseas.”

In March, I planned the route of a visit to the Pacific Northwest so I could return via Portland. A friend there—also a fan of Bob’s products—drove me to the Milwaukie suburb so that I could shop and dine at Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grain Store, Restaurant & Bakery.

But before that, we joined about two dozen other people for the daily tour of the factory. As the guide herded us around the production areas, viewed through reinforced windows, in strolled the man whose face appears on the packaging: Bob Moore, the company’s founder.

A smiling Moore spent about 10 minutes chatting with the thrilled visitors and posing for photos. Although his appearance is practically a daily routine at the factory, he seemed to be enjoying the encounters as much as the visitors. With a glow and vigor that belies a man close to 90 years old, it occurred to me what an exemplary role model Bob Moore is, inspiring his team and embodying the benefits of the healthy food products he and his employees make and sell.

Mark Schreiber is a freelance journalist and translator based in Japan.
More and more people want to know and recognize where their food comes from, and natural foods have joined the mainstream.