If all goes well, Tampa Bay’s Cuban bread will taste the same.
So far, the flour coming from Ardent Mills’ new $100 million plant in Gibsonton is essentially the same product that came from the downtown Tampa facility that’s been supplying it to bakeries across Florida for decades.
“The taste is really dictated by how our customers take the raw material and anything they’ll be adding,” said plant manager Steve Neely. “From the consistency in the performance, they’re very pleased.”
Over the last two months, production at the new plant has ramped up and the old plant has wound down, a shift that has not only modernized flour production in Tampa, but also cleared the way for even more development downtown.
Spread across seven buildings on 10 acres at Port Tampa Bay’s Port Redwing, the 150,000-square-foot campus can produce up to 1.75 million pounds of flour per day and store up to 4.1 million bushels of wheat. One mill produces bran and white flour; the other produces white, soft and whole wheat flour. There’s space for a third mill that could ramp up production even more.
The new plant is a marvel not only of technology, but of local real estate and politics.
The old Ardent Mills site fills 3 acres of downtown Tampa land that over the past couple of decades has become surrounded by shiny new condos and office buildings — first along Channelside, closer to Port Tampa Bay, and more recently the $3.5 billion Water Street Tampa development led by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment.
The flour mill has long been the subject of redevelopment rumors; it’s even been floated as the possible site for a new Rays stadium. But it wasn’t until 2018 that Vinik and his partners paid $13 million for the mill, clearing the way for a teardown — provided, of course, Ardent Mills could find a new home.
Enter Port Tampa Bay, which offered Ardent Mills land at Port Redwing in exchange for a long-term lease starting at $240,000 per year. Construction on the new facility has been delayed due in part to the pandemic, with cost estimates ballooning from $60 million to $100 million.
But through savings on shipping, staffing and storage, Ardent Mills expects the facility will save money and be more efficient in the decades to come. Whereas about 50 people worked downtown, “substantially increased level of automation” mean the new plant will employ about 35, Neely said. Just one of the new plant’s storage facilities could hold all the grain stored in the entire downtown plant, he said, giving it a “competitive advantage for supply chain agility.”
Follow trends affecting the local economy
Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“It’s pretty exciting to just see the size up close of our grain storage bins,” Neely said. “They’re 50 feet in diameter, 170 feet tall, so it’s almost breathtaking when you get to see them in person. The pictures just don’t quite do it justice.”
The new plant will feature some quality control technologies used for the first time in any Ardent Mills facility, including near-infrared analysis for any impurities in real time.
Ardent Mills has had teams in contact with customers throughout the transition from downtown to Port Redwing, soliciting feedback and offering trials of the new product. The means of production may be more complicated than rolling an old millstone down the road, Neely said, but so far, the feedback has been positive.
“The overall grinding, sizing, separating, the overall process of separating a kernel of wheat from the bran and the endosperm -- those functions remain the same,” Neely said, describing the flour-making process. “It’s just ways of making it safer, easier and more efficient, and more consistent to our customer.”