Knead help: Baker hopes new mill sparks Minneapolis flour power

Packing flour
Packing flour at Pillsbury mill, Minneapolis, Minnesota, September 1939. Milling is currently illegal in most parts of the Mill City.
John Vachon | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Inspired by the growing market for small-batch, locally crafted foods, a local baker wants to open a small-scale grain mill in Minneapolis.

There's one problem: Milling is currently illegal in most parts of the Mill City. But it's an obstacle that doesn't appear to be a deal killer for Steve Horton or some members of the Minneapolis City Council.

Baker Steve Horton
Baker Steve Horton stood in the space he hopes to turn into a small scale flour mill and bakery in Minneapolis on August 21, 2015.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

Horton, founder of the city's popular Rustica bakery, hopes to build a milling operation in the Food Building in northeast Minneapolis. The space is already home to high-end sausage and cheese-making businesses and has plans to add a restaurant, bar and deli.

Getting a milling operation there, however, means changing the law. The Minneapolis zoning code limits grain milling to a small number of heavy industrial areas.

Earlier generations of Minneapolitans wanted to keep flour production at a distance for a simple reason: Those giant operations had the potential to explode from the highly combustible flour dust. The old Washburn A Mill by the Mississippi River in Minneapolis infamously blew up once and burned down twice.

These days, however, small-scale flour milling poses fewer safety concerns, said Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey. He's proposing an ordinance that would allow milling in commercial areas.

He sees it as the next step in the local food movement.

"We've got a brew district that's thriving right now in northeast. We've got candy making. We've artisanal kinds of foods," he said. "You can make tortillas. Why not be able to make bread? We're the Mill City. This is what our entire municipality was built on."

Head cheesemaker Rueben Nilsson examined his work.
Head cheesemaker Rueben Nilsson examined his work at The Lone Grazer Creamery in northeast Minneapolis' Food Building, August 21, 2015.
Curtis Gilbert | MPR News

The proposed flour mill is on a radically smaller scale than the massive facilities that made Minneapolis the milling capital of the world 100 years ago. The mill Horton wants to build would focus on the local market. It would produce about 2,000 pounds a day at most. He'd make far less flour in an entire year than the Washburn A Mill made in a single day.

In a way, it would be a throwback to the way flour was milled before Washburn industrialized food production in the late 1800s. In those days, Minneapolis was home to dozens of mills, most of them relatively small. Today, the city has just three — all producing on an industrial scale.

Horton says there are only a few bakeries in the country making the kind of bread he wants to create. And milling flour on site is a critical part of the recipe.

Horton has eaten their bread and he says you can taste the difference.

"But in order to do that, you have to be in control," Horton said. "The more you can control the process of producing from A to Z, the more likely you're going to get the result you want at the end of it. The complexity that's involved there will linger in your mouth and will hit different notes."

Changing the law does not appear to be controversial. Frey hopes to get City Council approval before the end of the year to get the dough rolling as soon as possible.

Correction (Aug. 8, 2015): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that no other bakeries in the Twin Cities were milling their own flour.

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