A crispy secret: Surging demand for rice cakes keeps Columbia factory popping

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To get a taste of Columbia, visitors often flock downtown to grab a slice of pizza at Shakespeare’s or belly up to the bar for a Booches burger. But what many people may not know is that one of Columbia’s most trendy foods is actually a crunchy treat baked miles from downtown: rice cakes.

Since the Columbia Quaker plant’s opening in 1995, rice cakes have been rolling off its production lines into stores all across North America. In fact, every single Quaker rice cake sold in the United States comes from this plant. The current consumer trend toward healthy eating is keeping the factory as busy as ever.

We asked Columbia Plant Director Cole Knudsen a few questions about working in the rice cake business. Here’s what he had to say.

Missouri Business: What steps go into making a rice cake?

Cole Knudsen: The process of popping a rice cake has been around for quite some time. After the plant had been open for a while, Quaker partnered with the University of Missouri to help optimize the popping process. To produce rice cakes at the volume we do, there are a lot of automation and continuous flow systems. Essentially, we take grain, condition it and pop it in machines under high temperature and pressure for a certain amount of time. After it is popped, we apply flavoring and bake it. Then we package the product into what you see on the shelf.

MB: What different flavors do you produce?

Knudsen: We produce 18 different flavors at the Columbia site, ranging from the sweeter options, such as caramel or chocolate, to the savorier options, such as white cheddar or tomato basil. My favorite is the tomato basil — I can’t stop eating them when I open up a bag!

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MB: Can you tell us a little about your workforce and the types of jobs you provide?

Knudsen: We proudly recruit from all over Missouri. We are always seeking the best candidates within Columbia and the surrounding areas — we are extremely proud of the workforce we’ve built and the talent we engage with for open roles. I especially enjoy seeing family members of current employees join our team. Today, we have 17 different families that have more than one family member at our site. Several spouses work together, several employees are siblings and we have several father/son employees.

MB: How is the market for rice cakes looking these days?

Knudsen: Rice cakes are hot right now, and we love seeing folks energized by the product! To keep up with demand, right now we are operating our plant on a 24/7 schedule. There are only a handful of days throughout the year that our plant will shut down operations entirely. I think a lot of the interest in these products has to do with a growing food-conscious culture and having a variety of options to choose from. And Quaker prides itself in being able to provide high-quality, flavorful offerings.

MB: What do you like about doing business in Missouri?

Knudsen: Regionally, our location has significant advantages from being directly between Kansas City and St. Louis. I moved in from out of state a little over a year ago, and I have been nothing but impressed with Columbia’s hospitable, friendly and hardworking community. At Quaker specifically, all of the employees are very passionate people, and I’m glad to work side by side with them.

MB: What kind of growth has the company experienced recently, and what is driving that growth?

Knudsen: For over 140 years, Quaker has been the leading expert in oats, committed to combining science, scale, passion and expertise to support a strong portfolio. And, as I mentioned earlier, rice cakes are doing well. We believe this is potentially linked to consumers being more conscious about the food they eat, and we can provide them with foods they know they can trust.

MB: Do you have any fun facts about the plant to share?

Knudsen: Most people I run into outside of our plant say they know they are close because it smells like waffles outside. Ironically, we don’t make a “waffle” flavor — maybe it’s a future flavor idea to consider! My other favorite fun fact is if you stacked every single rice cake we make in a year edge to edge, they would wrap around the world just under 6.5 times!

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The PepsiCo Quaker factory in Columbia, Mo. Quaker Oats has been owned by PepsiCo since 2001.

MB: A little bit about you — what’s your favorite part about working in this industry?

Knudsen: Ever since school, I’ve worked within a manufacturing environment — and food manufacturing brings its own level of complexities. I love how fast-paced it is, and every day brings a new opportunity. To sum it up, my greatest sense of accomplishment is going home after our team successfully works together and accomplishes a goal.

MB: Anything else you’d like to highlight that we didn’t ask about?

Knudsen: Our ultimate goal is to service our customers with Quaker rice cakes, but it won’t be accomplished by sacrificing the quality of our product or putting our employees second. I want to recognize the employees at the Columbia Quaker Oats plant for all their hard work and dedication since I came to the site in May 2017. Some of our employees have worked here since the plant’s opening in 1995, and I’m proud to work alongside them.

What Missouri-made foods are manufactured in your community? Let us know in the comments below.

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