Food history: two brothers forge lasting cereal empire in Battle Creek

Though the precise origin of Kellogg’s corn flakes is tricky to nail down, company history credits it to one fateful day in either 1894 or 1898. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

By Lisa Green

August 24, 2022

As Michiganders, we put onions on hot dogs, olives on hamburgers, and snack on Polish donuts in February. But have you ever wondered why? In our Michigan Moments: Food series, we’re checking out the history behind iconic Michigan foods and beverages.

MICHIGAN—Though it may come as a surprise to you, food from the Midwest might be considered unusual by our coastal neighbors. Midwestern cooking often combines culinary traditions from our families’ immigrant backgrounds, locally grown and produced ingredients, and the foods of Indigenous tribes.

And in Michigan especially, our home cookin’ includes provisions that were concocted, bottled, and packaged by mitten-state entrepreneurs. If you’re curious about the history of some of your favorite foods and beverages, read on to discover how Michigan history creates Michigan culture.

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes

Battle Creek may not be one of Michigan’s biggest cities, but thanks to its deep history with the Post and Kellogg’s companies, we’re betting that you’ve heard of it.

This city in northwest Calhoun County, with a population of about 50,000 people, is otherwise known as Cereal City—and it’s the birthplace of the corn flakes that Tony the Tiger now calls “Grrreat!

Kellogg’s gets its name from its two founding brothers, William K. Kellogg and Dr. John H. Kellogg.

Dr. John Kellogg founded Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1876 and his brother, William, worked as his assistant and handled many of the sanitarium’s administrative tasks. The medical facility was founded on health principles from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Dr. John Kellogg emphasized “biologic living” and focused on patients’ digestive health—for which, corn flakes supposedly helped across the board.

Though the precise origin of Kellogg’s corn flakes is tricky to nail down, company history credits it to one fateful day in either 1894 or 1898.

In the sanitarium’s kitchen, a batch of wheat-based cereal dough was accidentally left out. The dough began to ferment, but the Kelloggs discovered the moldy dough could be rolled thin and produce large crispy flakes in the oven. As William Kellogg experimented further with the recipe, he eventually adapted corn as the base grain over wheat, which made the flakes even crunchier. It was an immediate hit. He initially called it Granose, the world’s first flaked cereal product.

Their company started as the Sanitas Food Company in 1900. The corn flakes were first sold by mail to the sanitarium’s ex-patients. Advertising soon followed, and suddenly, competitors flooded the market. One of these was C.W. Post, an ex-patient who invented Grape-Nuts and founded the Postum Cereal Co.

Dr. John Kellogg wanted to stick to medicine, but William Kellogg had more of a mind for business and expanded the company. They eventually had a falling out, and William became the face of the company, turning it into the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co. By 1909, the company was producing 120,000 cases of corn flakes daily. William picked the rooster mascot, Cornelius “Corny” Rooster, because the Welsh word for rooster was “ceiliog,” which William liked because it sounded similar to his surname.

With the help of the Transcontinental Railroad, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes integrated into the lives and the breakfasts of Americans across the country. Over the years, more than 30 different varieties of Kellogg’s cereal have emerged, but Corn Flakes, especially Frosted Flakes, remain one of its most popular brands.

In late June 2022, the Kellogg Co. announced plans to split into three separate companies—and move portions of its corporate headquarters for its new snack business to Chicago, reported the Battle Creek Enquirer. But the company’s leader said the move shouldn’t impact the city of Battle Creek negatively.

The spinoff of its North American cereal and plant-based foods businesses should reportedly be complete by the end of 2023. Both will continue to be based in Battle Creek, while the new snack business, which makes up about 80% of sales, will maintain dual campuses in Battle Creek and Chicago. 

“We’re very committed to Battle Creek,” Kellogg CEO Steve Cahillane told the Battle Creek Enquirer.

Check out the different cereals offered by Kellogg’s today.




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