How the Kellogg Brothers Invented Breakfast Cereal

The story of how breakfast cereal became one of the most consumed foods on the planet is wrought with twists and turns expected in a work of fiction.

Despite its drama, the story of two brothers, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and Will Keith Kellogg, is as true as the box of Corn Flakes in the kitchen pantry.

The Kellogg Brothers: Opposites Don’t Attract

John and Will were polar opposites. John was a graduate of New York University’s Medical School in 1875. That same year, Will was a salesman at his father’s broom making business with a sixth grade education.

After medical school, John returned to his home in Michigan, and became the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. The hospital became famous under John’s watch for its success as a holistic health center. John became somewhat of a celebrity. He became to busy to run the hospital operations, so he hired his underachiever brother Will to run the hospital.

The job turned into 15 hour work days for $6 a week. During Will’s tireless work, Dr. John enjoyed the notoriety for his famous hospital. This situation planted the seeds of discord that would not subside until the end of their lives.

Two Brothers’ Faith Leads to Flakes

The Kellogg brothers were both Seventh Day Adventists. Their faith put great emphasis on health and a vegetarian diet.

Will assisted John in researching healthy whole grain foods for patients. One day Will boiled some wheat because John suspected this preparation would make it easier for patients to digest. Will accidentally left out the boiled wheat for hours until it became dry. John and Will decided not to throw it out but to put it through the regular baking process.

The first step: the roller. Each wheat berry flattened out into wide flakes instead of one contiguous sheet of bread as traditionally prepared wheat would do. Will decided to bake these flattened wheat kernels and the result was a light, tasty, easily eaten flake.

Patients at the hospital loved them and requested that Will and John start mailing them packages of the delicious flakes. Will used the same boiling and rolling process with corn and discovered an even tastier product. These flakes of corn would soon transform the world of breakfast.

The First Kellogg Company Starts

Will Kellogg, the younger, underachieving brother, saw a great opportunity. In 1898 he started a mail-order company with John, as a side business. The company, called the Sanitas Nut Food Company, became very profitable.

The factory for making the flakes was located in a barn on the hospital grounds. Will continually tried to convince John to build another factory off site to protect their company’s secrets. John however, refused the request and even invited hospital guests to the barn to see how their treasured cereal was made. This proved a horrible idea, as one hospital patient was C. W. Post, who later created Post Cereals and became the Kelloggs’ main competitor.

Will Kellogg Takes the Company Bigger

All the time the side company was going on, Will wanted to make it bigger. By 1906 the Sanitas company had a host of competitors, among them Post Cereals, which was trouncing Sanitas in sales. Will finally convinced his brother to finance an entirely new company, one where Will would have control. John agreed, for the price of two-thirds of the new company’s stock. Will started the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906 and shipped 175,000 boxes of cereal the first year.

Genius of Promotion and Advertising

Will, a born promoter, was soon again the head of the pack in cereal makers. He invented promotional strategies that were way ahead of his time. He added his signature to the cereal box, fending away imitators. He also gave away books with the purchase of his cereal, gave away free samples of new products, advertised nationally in women’s magazines, and took out newspaper ads in each market before his product hit the shelves, creating more demand than supply.

Kellogg Family Feud Rages On

Despite Will’s genius in promotion, he and John continued to bicker over how to run the company. Dr. John, looking back to the product’s original purpose, was opposed to putting in any sugar since it reduced its nutritional value.

At one point Will waited until John was out of the country to buy enough company shares out from under John to obtain a controlling interest in the company. In 1922 Will officially renamed it the W. K. Kellogg Company.

Kellogg’s Means Breakfast

Will and John did not come to much reconciliation until close to the end of their lives. Nonetheless, the name Kellogg soon became synonymous with breakfast as nearly every American and many around the world had tasted Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and their many other varieties of breakfast cereal. To this day, Kellogg’s remains a dominant force in breakfast and sells its products in 160 countries, a testament to John’s focus on health and Will’s relentless promotion.

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