ELLISTON — The recent announcement of Big Spring Mill’s closure could doom culinary traditions around local biscuits made from artisan flour and fried squash breaded in the company’s savory seasoned flour.
Consumers buy every bag available on grocery store shelves. Fans exploit the small amount of product sold at Elliston’s factory on weekdays. Opportunists try to exploit the scarcity of the product with outlandish online advertisements.
“I saw one on Facebook Marketplace,” said company owner Bob Long. “It was a picture of our bag of seasoned flour and it said, ‘Last on earth, $5,000’. And I decided if that was true I was going to make a thousand more and everything just stop.
Long was jovial and serious at times as he discussed the closure of his family’s 172-year-old flour and feed mill on the bank of the South Fork of the Roanoke River in the east of Montgomery County. He said he did not announce his closure last month for financial or business reasons, describing the business as profitable – but he did so because he wants to retire by August 31 . He gave the company 31 years of service without counting the work done. while he was still in school.
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Long said he’s open to someone offering to buy the company before then and keep it going. But when asked if he had found that buyer, he said “probably not”.
Long confirmed that it has a price in mind. He declined to disclose any financial aspect of the situation or any discussions he may have had with potential buyers.
A lawyer who specializes in tax and business matters, including business succession planning, but without any direct knowledge of the situation, described some of the general challenges of selling a small family or private business.
“Small business owners spend more time raising their business than their children. He’s an economic kid,” Bill Gust told Gentry Locke’s Roanoke office.
Owners looking to exit often struggle “to find a transition strategy that makes both economic and emotional sense,” he said. The emotional bonds can be especially strong in the case of a fourth-generation family business, as is the case at Big Spring Mill.
When a younger family member has not been identified to succeed an older family member leaving the top job, as appears to be the case here, the incumbent management looks to the markets in which the businesses are bought and sold, Gust said. There, it may be possible for a small business to only attract interest from a stranger with all the passion but not the funds to pay the asking price. Or, the only suitors may be large commercial-scale competitors who have resources but reject the requested price or terms and offer a lower offer. A host of federal and state tax considerations are still part of the equation, as are economic conditions, Gust said. The US economy entered a slowdown phase at the beginning of this year.
According to IBIS World, an industry data tracker, the number of flour milling companies in the United States has fallen from about 425 in 2013 to 559 at last count. However, the market has not grown or contracted for five years and recently stood at $18 billion. More producers looking for consistent business volume means more competition.
Gust said it’s reasonable to assume that Long, who described the closure plan as the result of a multi-year process, consulted qualified experts along the way. Yet here it is less than five weeks away from its expected closing date with no buyer.
“It’s very possible that no one is interested in an artisanal factory,” Gust said.
The end of August is in a few weeks. Long did not rule out a sale taking place, saying only that by the end of July he probably hadn’t found a buyer. And, if Big Spring Mill closes on or before August 31, a sale of the assets thereafter would remain a possibility, Long said.
There would be no guarantee, however, that a post-closure buyer would resume business in the same way that has made the flour line a staple in households and some area restaurants. Such a buyer could choose to operate only the feed mill, the largest part of the business in terms of revenue, Long said. A meat or dairy producer could buy it as an internal source of livestock feed, for example, Long added.
“I tell people it’s not going to be tied with the pretty knot on top. A nice extra arc would mean there’s a seamless transition to a new operator,” Long said. “But when you’ve been coming to work for a few years, I think making the decision not to go to work is somewhat difficult for anyone. I mean, you might find that scary. I mean, what am I going to do?
Long, who works 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week, partially answered his question in the interview: He plans to work on his golf game and stay up late enough to watch “The Tonight Show.”
Gust’s use of the word “craft” was appropriate as Long walked into the milling room, where the floor felt silky underfoot due to an invisible layer of flour dust. The soft red winter wheat fell from the high silos in a succession of sets of rollers inside closed compartments accessible by a small wooden door. Long opened the door to a rolling point halfway, reached and interrupted a flow of product by catching the material with the fingertips of an open hand. He lowered his thumb and dropped the pellets to his palm.
“Still no flour yet. Still a bit grainy,” he said.
A few steps away, crew members fill and weigh white paper bags and close them with string using a sucker’s knot. The next room, the food production site, smelled of molasses, an additive that improves taste and pellet formation.
At the Food Lion on Roanoke Street in Christiansburg, the largest grocery store closest to the plant, the flour shelves had no Big Spring Mill bags when town resident Danielle Hinkley joined them on July 25.
“It’s the only seasoned flour I use,” she says, describing dishes such as fried squash, fried chicken fillets and fried country steak. There was only half a bag left at home, she said. She left the flour zone without flour although at least seven other brands were available.
Big Spring Mill flour is “flying off the shelves,” said store assistant manager Ricci Bell.
When Long goes to work these days, either there are already people waiting outside the factory, or they are soon arriving to buy products from the source, given the low availability in stores. . Long adopted a practice of locking the front door to keep people out until his staff were ready to sell at 7 a.m. As people started to double down on buying from the factory, Long set a limit of 20 pounds per person – and is still selling out. everything available.
“I can only do it so fast,” he said, noting that the maximum flour output is 600 pounds per hour. That’s a tiny fraction of the output of commercial-scale mills, such as Mennel Milling in Roanoke, that make most of the flour sold in this country today, he said.
The rush to buy surprised the modest Long. “I guess that says a lot about our product,” he said, “and I’ve had people say to me… ‘Well, I just don’t know what I’m going to do to flour.’ And the truth is, neither do I. I don’t know what I’m going to do for the flour because it’s the one I’ve always used.