Peggy Sutton’s business may have started out as a hobby in the rural Alabama hamlet of Fitzpatrick, but today her fast-growing To Your Health Sprouted Flour Co. sells its whole grain products to big-name food industry players and health-conscious customers around the world.
In a Bullock County base just off U.S. Highway 82, the company’s 22 employees produce 10,000 pounds of organic sprouted flour daily, making the firm one of the top U.S. manufacturers of a product that health-food enthusiasts say is more nutritious than refined flour.
The rising popularity of sprouted grains has powered the growth of the business Sutton launched from her kitchen in 2005 to sell artisanal baked goods. To Your Health now operates out of two buildings, where wheat and other grains are sprouted, dried, and milled into flour. Major customers include Whole Foods Market, Kellogg’s, Arrowhead Mills, and Frito Lay.
It’s been difficult to stay ahead of the growth, with sales during the first half of 2014 topping the total for all of last year, Sutton said. She doesn’t expect that to let up. In fact, she projects that To Your Health’s revenue will quadruple over the next five years as the sprouted grains trend gains momentum and the company’s international sales accelerate.
To Your Health has filled orders from around 20 countries, mostly from individuals seeking a small shipment. But it recently landed a substantial order from Rude Health, a London-based firm that will place its own label on To Your Health flour and use the Alabama company’s products to launch a new line of sprouted goods. In addition, new distribution channels in Dubai, South Africa and Australia are being explored.
“We get inquiries daily about exporting,” Sutton said.
Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said he would like to see more rural businesses in the state take advantage of exporting opportunities, as To Your Health has done. Canfield spoke recently at the Made in Rural America Regional Export and International Investment Forum at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham-Wynfrey Hotel.
“To ensure their well-being, Alabama’s rural communities need to develop multi-faceted sets of strategies to take advantage of trade and investment opportunities,” Canfield said.
HOW IT GOT STARTED
Back in 2005, Sutton wasn’t really planning a jump into business. The Bullock County native with a background in marketing was simply researching healthy diet options for she and her husband, Jeff. During this research, she stumbled onto material about the benefits of sprouted grains.
“I was fascinated by it, so I got Mason jars and sprouted some grain, dried it, milled it into flour and made it into bread,” she said. “The rest of the story is like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
What exactly had she discovered? A sprouted grain is a seed that has produced a shoot as the first step of the life cycle. To break out of the hard shell of the kernel, the shoot begins to digest some of the starch inside the seed – a development that gives sprouted grains nutritional benefits such as lower starch levels and higher proportions of vitamins and minerals than conventional grains.
“Once you sprout that grain, instead of a dormant seed, it becomes a living plant,” Sutton said. “We sprout until we see a little tail come out, and once you do that you get all the advantages of sprouting.”
Advocates say bread and other products made from sprouted grains are easier to digest and provide more nutrients.
“Sprouting is not a newfangled thing,” Sutton said. “It’s an old, time-honored tradition that goes way, way back. It fell by the wayside when the combine was invented in the Industrial Revolution, and there was a need to get that grain out of the fields fast and into the silos because everybody was flocking to the cities.”
At first, Sutton baked bread for friends and family members who had heard about was she was doing with sprouted flour. Then, after requests started pouring in, she decided to turn the kitchen-table hobby into a small-scale business.
In 2006, her husband Jeff had finished constructing a new barn, and he gave her a 12’x24’ space in it for the baking operation. She obtained a commercial license as a food processor so she could sell her baked goods at local stores and at the farmers’ market.
“Business was brisk, but then the phone started ringing and people wanted to know if they could buy the sprouted flour,” Sutton said. “They were home bakers and small bakeries, and I thought, ‘What a great idea.’ It had a longer shelf life and it was a lot less labor intensive. So we phased out baked goods and went into 100 percent flour production.”
During this time, she was a one-woman show, making all the flour – an average week of flour sales was about 200 pounds at that time – on her own. The orders kept flowing in. By 2009, her sprouted-flour operation had taken over the entire barn and she had hired her first full-time employee.
THE DAY THE PHONE RANG
The hobby officially died with a surprise call.
“One day the phone rang, and it was one of Whole Foods’ regional bake houses wanting to know if they could buy several pallets of flour, which was 2,500 pounds of flour a pallet,” Sutton recalled. “So I went to Jeff and said, ‘Honey, I think we have reached the mark here. This is either going to be my little hobby that pays for itself, or we have the opportunity to make this a business. But I need your help.’ He thought it was a great idea.”
Jeff Sutton, who had acted as a support system for his wife’s venture, now decided to give up his job as a plant-farm manager. Soon after the call, he was busy designing a 7,200-square-foot building that would become the home for the business, located on land passed by her father. He managed the construction project and oversaw the outfitting of the building.
The couple found an ally in Bob Smith, the assistant director of business development for the Alabama Department of Commerce. Smith helped them secure a tax abatement from Bullock County for the expansion project. He also worked to get the PowerSouth utility to promote the location, Sutton said.
“This has been a great hometown entrepreneurial story,” Smith said. “It was not luck. Jeff and Peggy saw an opportunity and did their homework. They prepared themselves for success.”
Success, though, meant that To Your Health rapidly outgrew its new building.
“We built this building thinking it would really take us about five years to grow into it, but less than two years later, we were already planning a second building because the demand was just going up and customers besides Whole Foods were coming on board,” Sutton said.
Business has continued on that upward trajectory. Sutton said Whole Foods recently decided to offer three of the company’s retail products in all of its stores, taking the company’s presence beyond a regional footprint with the retailer.
SPROUTING NEW SHOOTS
Today, Jeff Sutton is preparing for an expansion of the second building, which opened in 2013 and houses the company’s flour-milling and gluten-free operations. He said he designed the building with expansion in mind, making it easier to add space to facilitate more production.
While sprouted wheat flour remains the company’s largest product, To Your Health produces 15 different varieties of sprouted grains and legumes that are gluten free. A new product is in the works – sprouted grits.
“We are in the South,” Peggy Sutton said.
She also is working on a venture called Girls on the Farm LLC to produce the only sprouted granola available in the U.S. and other products from sprouted ingredients. She hopes to one day open a full-fledged bakery at the To Your Health site, which would take the Bullock County operation full circle.
“That’s what I love,” Sutton said.
*Reprinted with permission from the Alabama Department of Commerce