by Barbara Adams
Moist, fluffy pancakes with butter and maple syrup, crisp bacon, local fresh eggs fried just right – if this isn’t already your favorite country breakfast, it just may be after visiting Auburn’s New Hope Mills Café. You can not only choose from 13 toppings but also select from among 17 different recipes – the classic buttermilk or buckwheat, the autumnally popular pumpkin spice, or even jalapeño cheddar corn. What’s most surprising, though, is the Paul Bunyanesque-size pancakes – they’re bigger than a dinner plate.
“You can’t be the place known for pancakes and not over deliver,” says Douglas Weed, 40, third-generation owner of the New Hope Mills enterprise. Weed wants his customers content and full. “Our mission is to help families create memories around the table. Nowadays, when you make time to sit down with family, those are memorable times.”
The café opened in a smaller space in 2009 and expanded three years ago to seat 45. It’s a welcoming family place, homey and rustic, and includes a charming shop offering a profusion of mixes and flours. The rough-wood interior intentionally recalls the original old mill, as does the antique milling equipment throughout. It reminds you how labor-intensive the process of producing flour once was.
Patting the machines, clearly old friends, Weed explains how each one worked – the roller mill, the Little Wonder fine sifter, the bran duster, the flour dropper, and the ominously named wheat scalper. Though retired, these large wood and steel implements are still part of living memory for Weed, who grew up in the family business.
The business had its forebears near Niles, New York, in Sodom, a hamlet optimistically renamed New Hope in honor of its mills, built along Bear Swamp Creek. That rushing waterway, which ultimately pours into Skaneateles Lake, once powered more than a dozen industries. The gristmill at New Hope was built in 1823 by Judge Charles Kellogg. Later a New York State assemblyman, the judge was one of the cousins of the Battle Creek Kelloggs, Weed says. “We believe New Hope is the oldest Kellogg mill that still stands.”
Mills were the heart of rural America, staple trades in any small town. A sawmill (New Hope’s, originally from the 1820s, was rebuilt in 1935) gave you lumber for homes, stores, schools, and churches. A flour mill provided a place to sell and buy grain, ensuring the food supply.
In 1851, Kellogg sold his mill to Horace Rounds. It remained in the Rounds family for nearly a century, until 1947, when Leland Weed, Douglas’s grandfather, purchased it with his brother and his brother’s father-in-law. It’s been in the Weed family ever since.
Along with his brothers and cousins, Douglas grew up at the mill – stacking lumber, shoveling grain, packing product, helping customers. He admired his grandfather, whose tenacious, independent spirit seems to have passed down to him. Leland’s old desk and safe can still be seen in the café, and his image is on New Hope’s workers’ black t-shirts.
Leland was self-made, supporting his family from his youth as a woodworker and laying railroad tracks, then learning from scratch how to run a mill. He was both very kind and stubborn, Weed recalls. He was known for giving impromptu mill tours and bringing random visitors home for dinner. “He cared about people and knew how to talk to them and even disagree, reasonably.”
But he was also quick to defend himself. When the state imposed restrictions in the early ’70s, Leland, along with his son Dale, resisted; refusing to “enrich” their flour by bleaching it. “I think God knows how to make flour better than New York State,” he’d said. The Weeds wanted to set a statewide case precedent for small mills.
On their behalf, local schoolkids petitioned Albany in crayoned letters. And when the state wrote Leland a cease and desist letter, he taped it to the store counter and cheerfully reminded every customer that his business was illegal. Eventually the Weeds won out, being required only to print “flour” on their product in smaller letters.
“He was probably the only one ever to bootleg flour,” Weed says, still delighted at the memory.
Dale and David, two of Leland’s five children, bought the business in 1980. Dale, Douglas Weed’s father, was also a pastor with, he’d say, three families – at home, church, and mill. But Leland, as well as many other relatives, remained involved. In a family firm it’s all hands on deck. Twenty years later, David passed. Finally, after trying to retire a few times, Dale decided to sell to Douglas in late 2012 and begin a related new venture, Pure Functional Foods in nearby Savannah, with mainly gluten-free products.
Family ties to the legacy remain strong even as the business has significantly grown and changed. Weed notes with pleasure that five teenagers of the fourth generation, including two of his own four kids, work at the company.
“We were slowly outgrowing the capabilities of our small mill,” Weed says, “and started partnering with local mills. Some we still work with today, like Birkett in Penn Yan.”
New Hope phased out its grinding in the early 2000s. In 2004, with about 10 employees, it moved to the new site in Auburn – a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing plant, café, and retail store, with a current workforce of 50.
“You’d love to be able to do everything local, but there’s a certain point where you can’t,” Weed says. The wheat flour for the mixes now comes from throughout the Northeast, with the corn flour trucked from Indiana (which, if looked at on a global scale, Weed adds, is rather local). What’s most important, he says, is finding suppliers who keep the product consistent and good quality – if the protein level is too low, the flour underperforms.
Today, New Hope’s enterprise mainly creates and packages mixes. Besides the regionally famous pancake products, Weed says, “We custom manufacture over 600 different formulas for cakes, cookies, pretzels, chocolate mix, sorbets, anything that’s flour-based – different blends, flavor products and profiles. We’re working on a popover mix right now.”
Although New Hope-brand products are sold nationwide, including at Wegmans and Tops, almost 45 percent of the current business is producing or packaging private-label blends, such as a cornbread mix for a barbeque company and organic cocoa for another, both Boston-based.
As CEO, Weed has to wear many hats, including keeping up with food safety regulations. All the products are kosher – the organic ones are prepared separately. Even the mixes’ brown bags have safety strictures to be followed. Quality is always on his mind, and the café’s food and the mixes themselves bear testimony to that.
This Thursday morning, the café is nearly full. Meanwhile, a dozen miles away, the old gristmill, a designated historical site since 2005, sits silently near its dam and ever-noisy waterfall. Weed hopes eventually to turn it into a museum. “Someday,” he says, as his phone rings demandingly. “My dad should have had 12 kids.”
The New Hope Mills Café & Store, 181 York Street, Auburn, New York, serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (store is open to 4 p.m.). Closed Sundays and holidays. In Cortland, the Grindstone Café, 89 Main St., is open daily 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. The website offers products and recipes – newhopemills.com.