BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — Depending on your metric, Battle Creek is a “big city.”

According to the 2020 census, just over 51,000 people live in Battle Creek — not large even by Michigan standards. If measured by population, it settles in as the 32nd-largest city in the state — behind giant metropolises like Novi and Kentwood.

But by land, Battle Creek is actually the third largest city in the state — behind only Detroit and Grand Rapids.

It’s not the most popular tourist town in Michigan, but most Michiganders know a few basic facts.

It’s called “Cereal City” for being home to Kellogg’s, Post and several other cereal companies. It was a major stop on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves find freedom from the southern states. And the city was a key location in the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

At its core, Battle Creek is a manufacturing town. Even though it is no longer the city’s largest employer — that honor now belongs to auto parts supplier Denso — no company has played a bigger role in shaping the city than Kellogg’s.

A BREAKFAST GAME-CHANGER

Kellogg is now a household name. But the family wasn’t always known for making cereal. In the late 19th century, Will Keith Kellogg and his brother, John Harvey Kellogg, managed the sanitarium in Battle Creek. While there are many competing stories, historians mostly agree that W.K. Kellogg invented a method for creating crunchy, tasty pieces of processed grain for his patients.

An undated photo of W.K. Kellogg. (Courtesy W.K. Kellogg Foundation)

And it all happened seemingly by accident.

The sanitarium served a high-grain, vegetarian diet to its patients. In the 1870s, W.K. Kellogg developed a twice-baked mixture of flour, oats and corn meal. After a patient broke her tooth on a biscuit version of the baked cake, W.K. Kellogg started smashing them into smaller bits.

According to the company’s history, the pivotal moment came in 1898 when a batch of dough was accidentally left out and started to ferment. When W.K. Kellogg rolled the dough into thin sheets, the slightly moldy dough created large, thin flakes that developed a crispy crunch in the oven.

W.K. Kellogg continued to experiment with the recipe, including adding sugar and malt, and figured out the flakes became even crunchier when made with corn flour instead of wheat.

Corn Flakes were born.

The cereal was only served at the sanitarium until C.W. Post, who had been treated there, launched his own company selling several foods shockingly similar to ones developed and served in the sanitarium.

The design of a box of Corn Flakes after W.K. Kellogg launched the “Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co.” in 1906. (Courtesy Kellogg’s)

According to a report from The History Channel, Post was too poor to afford the fees to stay at the sanitarium, so he worked in the kitchen to help pay his debts and got a front-row seat to the sanitarium’s cooking methods.

Believing that Post was profiting off his recipes and sick of working with his brother, W.K. Kellogg bought out his brother for the rights to the Corn Flakes recipe and established his own production company in 1906 — the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company.

From there, the company boomed, with Corn Flakes becoming a national name. By 1909, the company was manufacturing 120,000 cases of Corn Flakes per day. The company continued to grow, developing new cereals and expanding into other products.

CEREAL CITY HEYDAY

Thanks to the success of Kellogg and Post, Battle Creek became known as “Cereal City,” and several other people tried to mimic their path.

According to the Calhoun County Visitors Bureau, at one time there were more than 100 cereal companies registered in the city. Not all were legit, however. According to the Bureau, some were shell companies and others would buy cereal off the shelf and repackage it to be sold again.

Today, it’s once again just Kellogg’s and Post, although Post Consumer Brands’ headquarters is in Minnesota.

Despite last month’s announcement that the company was splitting in three, with one to be headquartered in Chicago, the Kellogg’s brand is still strong in Battle Creek.

Kellogg’s holds more than 30,000 employees across the world. That includes roughly 2,000 workers between corporate headquarters and the Porter Street manufacturing facility.

Cereal aside, the company’s food research and development kitchen resides in the city. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has doled out millions of dollars to support projects in Battle Creek and beyond since being founded in 1930.

Battle Creek City Manager Rebecca Fleury says being home to the cereal giant is still a big deal.

“To be the home of Kellogg’s, the headquarters, the research and development and the manufacturing field is quite an honor for us. And we’re pretty proud and honored that they are part of our community,” Fleury said.

While Kellogg’s will always hold a special place in the city’s heart, Fleury’s focus goes far beyond the cereal giant.

“We’re an older, urban core community, really, created from industry and manufacturing, which served a great purpose for us,” Fleury told News 8. “But as you see industries change, we have tried to change and pivot to meet the needs. … Along the way we realized that we not only need to focus and support our large businesses around industry and manufacturing, but an intentional focus on small businesses. We’ve seen some great success stories — Detroit is one of them — with a focus on small businesses. We are looking to reinvent what we look like, both as a downtown and our core neighborhoods and districts.”

Kellogg Co. headquarters in Battle Creek. (June 21, 2022)
Kellogg Co. headquarters in Battle Creek. (June 21, 2022)

MAINTAINING RELATIONSHIPS

Fleury has served as city manager for nearly eight years and says she has always had a productive relationship with the company, including former CEO John Bryant and current leader Steve Cahillane.

For Fleury, she says it isn’t as much about the company’s actions as it is the clear communication between officials. She says she understands there are times where businesses must make decisions that aren’t always in the best interests of their host city.

“(Before he left), CEO John Bryant was a participant in B.C. Vision, which was an initiative to bring the community together, to identify what our priorities are for creating the vibrant culture of vitality that we want for people who are already here and for those we would love to attract to our community,” Fleury said. “(The initiative) was based on a decision that the Kellogg company had made to move some of their employees to Grand Rapids. And it was a call to the community to say, OK, we want them to stay here, we understand business decisions have to be made, but what can we do to make Battle Creek the choice for young professionals, for Kellogg executives.”

Even in last month’s company announcement, Fleury says Kellogg’s officials notified them as early as they could.

“They informed the city that those changes were coming as soon as they could, respecting the fact that they’re a publicly traded company and there are parameters around that,” Fleury said.

Following the announcement to divide the company, Cahillane wrote an op-ed in the Battle Creek Enquirer explaining the decision. While many decisions are still up in the air, Cahillane said the company is still “deeply committed to Battle Creek.”

“This community has been critical in shaping Kellogg’s success and identity for more than a century,” Cahillane said in his op-ed. “Our roots here will be equally crucial in carrying our legacy forward and connecting our rich history to the opportunities in front of us.”

Fleury told News 8 that she takes Cahillane at his word.

“I’ve been asked that many times: ‘Do you think that it was sincere?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’” Fleury said. “I felt that what he was sharing with us was sincere and that there were still questions to be answered. He called it, ‘There’s still work to be done.’ And that’s why I don’t have a lot of specific answers about what the city is going to do next. But we know for certain that we’re going to support Kellogg’s through this transition.”

KELLOGG’S FLEXES ITS MUSCLES

The company’s relationship with the city wasn’t always so amicable. One notable occasion stands out, with the company pulling rank and demanding the city comply with its orders or risk losing the business entirely.

Battle Creek is Michigan’s third-largest city by territory because of Kellogg’s. In 1982, company officials issued an ultimatum: merge with nextdoor Battle Creek Township or we’re moving.

A May 1982 article in The Grand Rapids Press lays out Kellogg’s ultimatum to the City of Battle Creek: merge with Battle Creek Township or we will move our headquarters. (The Grand Rapids Press/NewsBank)

According to a Booth News Service report from May 1982, Kellogg’s chairman William LaMothe was unhappy with both the city and the township’s handling of long-standing social and economic problems. His solution? Merge the two.

“It has become more and more difficult for us to attract professional and technical personnel willing to relocate to this area,” LaMothe said. “Many of those who have joined the company in recent years have made the decision to live in Kalamazoo.”

Overall, more than 3,000 jobs were on the line and upwards of $133 million in annual cash flow. When adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately $400 million today.

In the month leading up to the election, a Kellogg’s spokesperson announced the company had started talks with six other nearby municipalities about the potential to build a new corporate headquarters.

Voters were seemingly convinced by the threat, approving the measure overwhelmingly. In the city, the tally came down with 6,857 “yes” votes to 3,804 “no” votes. In Battle Creek Township, 9,524 citizens voted yes, compared to only 816 “no” votes.

Following the vote, Battle Creek Mayor Floyd Oglesby said, “We’re on our way to great things.”

LaMothe called it “a victory for the future of Battle Creek.”

A 1982 article from The Grand Rapids Press reports on the voter-approved merger to consolidate the City of Battle Creek with Battle Creek Township. (The Grand Rapids Press/NewsBank)

Fast-forward to 2022, and Fleury says it’s still common for large companies to put pressure on local government officials.

“I would have to say yes,” Fleury told News 8. “And we won’t use (the word) threatening, but companies will say, ‘We need to grow and change. What can you offer us to do that here versus a different community?’ That’s what is really hard in Michigan because nobody wants to compete against each other. And yet that’s what happens. And sometimes that’s what happens based on the incentive packages that we have in our toolbox.”

She continued: “I think Battle Creek has done very well at leveraging the economic tools that we have available to us to support businesses like Kellogg’s, Post, Duncan Aviation, Denso. I mean, I could go on and on. I’ve been in local government for 22 years, and it has always been part of the playbook in local government management. You need to have and nurture relationships with your business community, large and small, and really listen to what their needs are.”

While she says pressure is part of the job, she’s never seen a full-blown ultimatum like the 1982 merger request, both in terms of scale and in a company with such established and close ties to a community.

“Do they get to the extreme of making two governments merge? Well, they did it in Battle Creek and they got it passed,” Fleury said with a laugh.

News 8 tried multiple times to reach Kellogg’s for comment. It did not return our requests.