Little Crow Foods happy to fly solo: Family-owned maker of CoCo Wheats cereal has avoided industry consolidation

The northern Indiana city of Warsaw is best known as home to three of the largest prosthetic makers in the world. But the smaller Little Crow Foods might be just as influential.

Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, the company is responsible for bringing the American public the iconic CoCo Wheats cereal and a handful of other food products that followed.

“When we have companies that have been as successful and around as long as Little Crow, I talk about them all the time,” said Joy McCarthy-Sessing, president of the Warsaw-Kosciusko County Chamber of Commerce. “So many people have warm memories of eating their products. We’re very proud to have them here.”

Little Crow Foods never will be mistaken for behemoth General Mills. Yet, revenue continues to grow every year, said President Denny Fuller, whose wife’s great-grandfather founded predecessor Little Crow Milling Co. in 1903.

Consolidation within the food-products industry has left few competitors standing. Pepsico Inc., for instance, purchased Quaker Oats Co. in 2001 for $13.4 billion in stock.

To remain relevant, Little Crow Foods began producing various dry-blended mixes for other companies. That arrangement has been a saving grace, as sales from its contract-packaging division account for 90 percent of operations. Fuller, who arrived in 1983, declined to reveal revenue and said the company keeps client names confidential.

“We did not start growing that [division] to the extent it is now until about 10 years ago,” Fuller said. “We decided that would be an avenue, and the world has beat a path to our door.”

The original mill ground corn and wheat into corn meal and flour. After a devastating fire in 1919 destroyed much of the mill, owners began selling five-pound paper sacks of pancake mix to retailers. The clothes baskets the three-dozen bags arrived in proved popular with merchants, who resold them for 25 cents.

Little Crow Foods morphed into its present form in 1930 with the creation of CoCo Wheats, the first flavored hot cereal, which helped shape Little Crow Foods’ legacy. A photo on its Web site shows the cereal being featured on a segment of the once-popular Captain Kangaroo children’s program.

Miracle Maize, a cornbread and muffin mix, followed in 1939. After the introduction in 1953 of Fryin’ Magic, a seasoned coating for chicken, fish, pork and vegetables, the pipeline of products dried up.

The company, however, enjoyed a resurrection of sorts in the 1980s, when it brought two more items to the market. The FastShake Pancake Mix debuted in 1985 and targets the “on-the-go” consumer. Water is the only ingredient necessary to make pancakes straight from FastShake’s plastic container.

The product is its most popular and spawned the competing Shake ‘N Pour from General Mills in the early 1990s. General Mills shelved the mix but reintroduced it this fall.

Little Crow Foods followed FastShake in 1989 with Bakin’ Miracle, a seasoned coating mix similar to its Fryin’ Magic but better suited for oven use.

The company since has celebrated its 100-year anniversary and looks forward to the next century of business.

“There are very few food companies left,” Fuller said. “I’m like the last guy standing, from a small-company standpoint.”

In addition to its products above, Little Crow makes dry mixes for other companies.

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