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Breakfast Champion: 6 Facts on Cereal Giant W.K. Kellogg

This week marks breakfast cereal titan W.K. Kellogg’s birthday. We look at six facts about his life that made him one of the most prominent food pioneers of his time.

On April 7, 1860 Will Keith Kellogg was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, the seventh child among a hefty brood of sixteen. Although he was educated at Parson’s Business College in Kalamazoo — not too far from his birthplace — most of his business acumen came from rigorous on-the-job training. He worked 15-hour days at his family’s holistic health center and had a hand in almost every role. Like his family, Kellogg would feed his entrepreneurial spirit and eventually embark on his own company, the Kellogg Company, to become the American breakfast cereal titan and renowned philanthropist that he is known for today.

So before you fuel up on your Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, check out how founder W.K. Kellogg became a champion of breakfast and what he did to continue his hard-earned legacy.

W.K. Kellogg and his family were Seventh Day Adventists.

The Kellogg family converted to Seventh Day Adventism, a Protestant Christian denomination that observed the Sabbath, promoted vegetarianism, and abstained from alcohol and caffeine. Using the church’s dietary principles, Kellogg’s older brother John, who was a doctor, took over the Adventist Health Reform Institute in 1876. Renaming the institute the Battle Creek Sanitarium, John helped build its reputation for being a center for holistic health.

W.K. Kellogg worked hard at the family business.

While John enjoyed being the face of the sanitarium, it was Kellogg who ran the operation from the ground up. Kellogg was the bookkeeper and also fulfilled mail orders and answered correspondence. He even functioned as the handyman and janitor at times. There are some accounts that John had Kellogg shave him, shine his shoes and act as his personal valet. Their uneven work dynamic created tension between them, but Kellogg’s hard work and thorough knowledge of how the business ran became the foundation of his own future business pursuits.

Kellogg’s discovery of flaked cereal was by accident.

In the 19th century, the breakfast of choice for the rich consisted of eggs and meat, while those less well-off ate toast or some kind of hot cereal. With his doctorate degree and his alternative ideas on health, John, along with Kellogg, experimented with a more easily digestible wheat paste for their patients at the sanitarium. On one occasion they accidentally left the paste out for many hours. Instead of throwing it out, the brothers decided to put the dried-out paste through the cereal roller and the result were wheat flakes. The brothers baked the flakes and realized they had just invented the first dry flaked breakfast cereal.

A food spy stole their invention, which caused further tension between the brothers.

Knowing they had a special product on their hands, the brothers decided to allocate their new dry flaked cereal under John’s side business, which was called the Sanitas Nut Food Company. Kellogg pleaded with John to keep their new invention a secret, but the latter was more concerned with earning publicity. Allowing sanitarium clients to tour their facilities, John made a huge mistake; one of those clients happened to be a man by the name of C. W. Post, who stole their idea and and started his own cereal company, Post Cereals (later General Foods). It was considered one of the biggest acts of industrial espionage ever recorded.

Irate over the spying incident, Kellogg started his own company.

Clashing with his brother on business issues from advertising to whether to add sugar to their product (John was against both ideas), Kellogg eventually embarked on his own company in 1906. However, before doing so, the brothers did find common ground on one thing: they changed the cereal grain from wheat to corn. The decision was a smart one. Corn flakes proved to be very profitable.

Striking out on his own, Kellogg applied his ideas on promotion and advertising to get his cereal enterprise, the Kellogg Company, off to a solid start. He advertised in newspapers, women’s magazines, erected large billboards, and was even the first businessman to offer promotional giveaways with his product. His ideas proved immensely successful, and the Kellogg Company’s profits soared to new heights.

Kellogg established two major philanthropic foundations.

Believing inherited wealth leads to moral corruption, Kellogg used his millionaire status to spread good in the world: he started the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 1934, which today helps fund global initiatives in the areas of health and education. A lover of horses, Kellogg also founded the Kellogg Arabian Ranch in Pomona, California, which he established as a renowned breeding center for Arabian horses, starting in 1925. Today the sprawling ranch functions as an equine research and breeding facility of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona).