Local flour mill rises to occasion

North Country Farms product used in Panera Bread offering

General manager F. Marshall Weir moves a bag of freshly ground flour to a scale at North Country Farms last fall. The mill recently began a partnership with Panera Bread. Photo by Amanda Morrison/Watertown Daily Times

Kevin L. Richardson, president of North Country Farms, Watertown, has learned that huge business deals sometimes need only a small spark to be set in motion.

For Mr. Richardson, the spark was made by sending a casual email to Scott G. Davis, chief concept officer for Panera Bread. Mr. Richardson, who’d just read a newspaper article about Mr. Davis and was surprised to learn his office was in Syracuse, was casting a line to see whether Panera might be interested in using the mill’s natural whole-wheat flour to bake its bread.

Some 18 months after that email was sent, Mr. Richardson received a call from Panera announcing that its whole wheat bread made with the mill’s flour is ready to hit the shelves at about 30 cafes, stretching from Watertown to the Syracuse and Albany areas. The whole wheat bread, which Panera advertises on its website, can be pre-ordered by customers who are enrolled in its customer rewards program called MyPanera.

Mr. Richardson tasted the “New York State Baker’s Reserve” bread for the first time in November along with other customers who made orders. Meanwhile, he’s digesting what this partnership could mean for the growth of his business, which was launched in 2008.

“Who would have thought that a small-scale business like us would be partners with a large-scale franchise like Panera Bread? We’re so happy that such a well-known company likes our product,” he said.

The mill, at 24685 Route 37 in the town of Pamelia, may look diminutive compared to the state’s largest plants, Mr. Richardson said, but Panera employees who toured the facility in the summer of 2011 were impressed. For one thing, unlike flour producers that burn wheat at high temperatures and thereby sacrifice its nutrients, the small mill grinds its wheat with revolving stones at lower heat levels. The whole wheat flour preserves its high protein content and natural ingredients as a result, and it doesn’t include a long list of additives.

After touring the site, Mr. Davis remarked on the flour’s quality and developed a plan to launch a bread made only with ingredients from New York state farms. So while the national chain typically partners only with larger-scale wheat producers, he said, it made an exception to that rule by entering into an agreement with the small business. According to the business partnership, Panera will pick up flour with its delivery trucks in Watertown after it drops off fresh dough in the morning. The flour then will be taken to a regional production plant in Boston, where fresh dough is made before it is shipped to regional locations.

“We see this as an experiment,” Mr. Davis said. “For someone like Kevin from North Country Farms, it wasn’t likely we’d use their flour for bread because they don’t have much capacity. But we saw they had some great stuff, and we thought that since we were already delivering dough, we could bring it back to make bread offered regionally.”

Panera already has taken in a 2,500-pound batch of flour from North Country Farms. It will continue ordering more, Mr. Davis said, as long as customers continue to buy it. He said the franchise now is focused on spreading the message about the local whole wheat bread to its customers.

“It’s a test of ways to become more localized inside of a large-scale bakery cafe,” he said.

And for North Country Farms, it will be a test to see whether customers like the bread enough to keep buying more. If the bread sells well, it could be offered in states across the Northeast.

General Manager F. Marshall Weir III, who’s worked as a full-time business partner with Mr. Richardson since 2010, said he hopes the bread’s quality will speak for itself among customers.

“People now like the idea of local, quality food,” he said. “I think the ‘made in New York state’ aspect of this bread flies, and we hope it sells well because it tastes great. Eventually, we’d like to see it offered on menus at locations outside the state because customers love it.”

The Panera Bread deal illustrates the small business’s success offering locally produced products that are distinguished from others lining shelves of grocery stores, Mr. Weir said.

Along with selling its wheat flour on the wholesale market in New York City and several Northeastern states, the business sells white flour, pancake mix, honey and maple syrup on the retail market to local grocery stores in the north country and Central New York.

“When people see the North Country Farms brand, we want them to think it’s a healthy, quality product,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the product is; we want to make sure it’s at the highest possible quality.”

Ted Booker is a Johnson Newspapers staff writer. Contact him at  tbooker@wdt.net or 661-2371.