(Note: On Feb. 19, 1906, Will Keith Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company. The Michigan entrepreneur’s production and marketing of breakfast cereals would eventually become the multibillion dollar company known as Kellogg’s. The Mackinac Center marks the 100th anniversary of this Michigan success story with the following edited version of an essay written by Burton W. Folsom Jr., the Center's senior fellow in economic education. The commentary was first published in September 1997.)
Nearly 100 years ago, in the summer of 1907, New Yorkers were astonished and their breakfast habits forever altered by an advertising campaign cooked up in Battle Creek, Michigan. The campaign’s catchy slogan was "Wednesday is ‘Wink Day’ in New York." Daring and even risqué for its day, the campaign promised each homemaker in the city a free box of corn flakes if only she would go to a grocery store, look the grocer in the eye, and then wink at him — but only on Wednesdays.
The man behind this effort had a name that would soon become a household word all across America. He was Will Kellogg, and skeptics advised him that his newfangled food idea would never catch on unless he could conquer the big New York market. His clever campaign worked, and within about a year, he was shipping thirty train car loads of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to the Big Apple every month. Ready-to-eat cereals in a box would go on to become a staple of the American diet.
Most people today don't know the fascinating details of Will Kellogg’s rise to fame and fortune. The making of the first flaked cereal is a lesson that teaches us never to underestimate the entrepreneurial spark that may lie dormant in even the most surprising people.
Will Kellogg seemed most unlikely to become one of the wealthiest Americans of the century. He had dropped out of school at the age of thirteen. One of his teachers called him "dim-witted." While still in his teens, he failed at selling brooms and wouldn't attempt a business venture again for 30 years. In the interim, the shy and quiet Will worked at the Battle Creek sanitarium of his older brother John Harvey ("J. H."), performing odd jobs, a few basic management functions, and some personal chores for J. H., and never earning more than $3 a day. His most exciting tasks included chasing down escaped patients.
Sometimes Will assisted in food preparation. He helped develop a moist and tasty breakfast treat made from wheat dough pressed into large sheets and cut into square servings. One fateful night, he accidentally left the dough uncovered and found that by morning, it had dried out. When he ran a rolling pin over it, it "flaked up." Instead of throwing the flakes away, he decided to put them in bowls and serve them. The patients loved the crunchy stuff and demanded more!
Suddenly, a light went on in Will's head. In addition to corn, he experimented with oats and barley and found that flaked cereal made from them were popular too. He started a mail order business to supply patients with cereal after they went home. In 1896, the first full year of sales outside the sanitarium, he sold 113,400 pounds and imitators were already nipping at his heels.
Will then ran into a stone wall. J. H. was opposed to getting into the mass marketing of cereal. And when Will added sugar to the flakes, his health faddist brother hit the roof. In 1906 at the age of 46, the man who was known as "J. H.’s flunky" finally became his own boss and went into business for himself.
The New York ad campaign of 1907 was not Will’s only flash of marketing genius. He pioneered in the use of coupons. He promoted innovations, from Rice Krispies to All Bran. He was the first to use electric billboards in New York City. And he was tenacious in the face of disaster: When a fire destroyed his entire factory at an early stage of his business and Battle Creek bankers were reluctant to lend him money to replace it, he raised the capital in Chicago and opened up a bigger and better factory. He shepherded his company through the Great Depression with this instruction to his staff: "Double our advertising!" He pushed his Michigan products into dozens of countries.
In his seventies, a millionaire many times over and one of America's richest citizens, Will Kellogg became one of Michigan's most celebrated philanthropists. He generously supported disease research, education, and medical help for children, and even bought an 832-acre farm for Michigan State University to experiment with crop yields. He plunked down about $50 million to start the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, now the largest philanthropic organization based in the state.
In his last years, blind and weak in body but strong in spirit, Will liked nothing better than to be driven to the Kellogg plant so he could sit and listen to the noises from the factory — his factory. In 1951, he died at 91. His biographer, Horace B. Powell, aptly described him as "a man who overrode his own troubles to ease the lives of untold thousands in three continents of the world."
Because of people like Will Kellogg, Michiganians should never underestimate how much good can be accomplished by a single person, any person, with an idea and the freedom to try it out.
Dr. Burton W. Folsom Jr. is a senior fellow in economic education for theMackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.