Driving just south of Portland along Oregon highway 224 in Milwaukie, you can't miss it. Bob's Red Mill, a 15-acre production and flouring facility and two-acre retail outlet, is well-loved by natural foods enthusiasts and Oregonians. The landmark business and marketplace has grown from humble local roots into one of the most prominent producers of natural and organic milled grain products in North America. Despite great success, Red Mill's owner Bob Moore never forgot where his business began.

Now in a generous and humbling gesture, Moore has handed over ownership of the business to his 209 employees, according to OregonLive.com.

"In some ways I had a choice," said Moore, referring to the countless offers on the table to buy his privately held company or take it public. "But in my heart, I didn't. These people are far too good at their jobs for me to just sell it."

The plan was unveiled during Moore's 81st birthday event, which he celebrated with scores of his employees. Deemed The Employee Stock Ownership Plan, the new business model is a retirement plan in which the company contributes its stock to the plan to be held in trust for the benefit of its employees.

"This is Bob taking care of us," said Lori Sobelson, who helps run the business' retail operation. "He expects a lot out of us, but really gives us the world in return."

Although the company's worth is not public, revenues were estimated to be at least around $24 million in 2004, and a recent news release reported an annual growth rate of between 20 percent to 30 percent every year since. That means eventual payouts to the employees could be substantial.

Vested employees, who need to be with the company for at least three years to qualify, will be given annual reports detailing their respective stake in the company. When they quit or retire, the employees will be given cash totaling whatever amount they are due.

Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods bills itself as the "nation's leading miller of diverse whole-grain foods." It produces more than 400 products from flours, cereals and bread mixes, primarily whole grains, that are ground with quartz millstones which come from several 120-year-old mills, as well as distributing beans, seeds, nuts, dried fruits, spices and herbs. Many of the products are certified organic and some are also gluten-free.

"It's very humbling to be part of a company that cares this much about its employees," said Nancy Garner, Moore's executive assistant.

Indeed, in a time of national economic woes, employment insecurity and taxpayer-funded bank bailouts, it's refreshing to find a locally based natural foods company with a business model that's as healthy for its employee's well-being as its product.

MNN homepage photo: Bob’s Red Mill