Made in western Washington: Behind the scenes at Krusteaz

KENT, Wash. -- There are not many things that can compare to waking up in the morning and smelling pancakes on the griddle. For close to 80 years, the pancake mix of choice for many people all over the country has been Krusteaz, a brand with roots here in the Pacific Northwest.  The brand now falls under the umbrella of Continental Mills, Inc. And throughout that time, the company has remained a family business with the Heily family.

“The name ‘Krusteaz’ (crust-ease) came from easy to prepare pie crust. Easy to prepare pie crust, Krusteaz,” explained John Heily, Chief Executive Officer of Continental Mills.

The Krusteaz brand goes back to 1932 when a group of women who were part of a Seattle bridge club, came up with that “easy-to-make” pie-crust. But when the Heily family took over a few years later, they wanted to see if the same thing could be done for pancakes.

“Unbeknownst to most folks, that product was developed at the University of Washington’s home economics department,” said Heily. “That was about 1946-1947.”

And the Krusteaz pancake mix was born. John Heily started in the company in the late 1960’s and eventually became company president in the mid 1970’s. Heily said he had to learn everything about the business. Including serving pancakes from a van converted into a makeshift kitchen. It was called the “Krusteaz Kertesy Kitchen.”

A major milestone for the company was the construction of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline in the mid-to-late 1970’s, Heily said.

“Food was a very important part of the morale for the men at that point,” said Heily. “And having baked products produced, 3,4,5 times a day… baked foods are comfort foods, and comfort foods really helped out with the whole experience.”

Continental Mills corporate offices are located in Tukwila with a production factory located just a few miles away in Kent.

The other major milestone though, was when Continental Mills decided to drop its frozen pancake product line more than 20 years ago, and use those profits to open up a second facility in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

“For us to build a facility back there with both east and west manufacturing, gave us access to the east coast,” said Heily.

Today, Continental Mills makes much more than pancakes. It boasts 650 different products all under three divisions in the company…retail, food service and mass merchandising.

Much of the mixes for the Krusteaz brand muffins, lemon bars, brownies, biscuits and so much more are produced, tested and packaged at the facility in Kent. It has a sophisticated computer system that tracks everything from the raw product, like sugar and flour that comes in, to what’s being packaged and delivered to stores. It’s also under the watchful eye of Mike Possanza who’s the safety manager and processing resource for the facility.

“We have flour and sugar in silos outside,” said Possanza.  “They store roughly 250 to 300 thousand pounds.”

According to Possanza, what makes Krusteaz brand well-liked over the years is the consistency.

“Batch number one is exactly the same as batch 1000,” said Possanza.

Food testers on staff, make sure raw ingredients to the end product is the same each and every time. Another key is the sense of ownership each of the workers have.

“Our operators can shut a line down if they don`t think it`s right,” he said.

But with more people ‘on-the-go,’ and not having many sit down meals anymore,  company leaders had to come up with a way to also tap into a growing market…snacks.

“We made that decision about four years ago strategically to get into a category that was entirely incremental to us, but also was a growing category,” said Andy Heily, president of Continental Mills and also John Heily’s son.

Continental Mills also produces snack foods like ‘Wild Roots’ trail mix and ‘Buck Wild’ chips. It’s “better for you snacking,” said Andy.

“Which is everything from tortilla chips to dehydrated fruits and vegetables to organic cold cereals, trail mixes. Everything is clean ingredient, very natural, non GMO,” he said.

Both John and Andy said that financially-wise a goal for Continental Mills is to someday reach $1 billion in revenue. And to keep it a family-run private company.

“We aim to provide product that our consumer can go wow...that is something I`m proud to put on my table,” said John Heily.