Business Operations

Business Operations

Cereal Contest Stirs Interest in Manufacturing

a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera

Gilster-Mary Lee Corporation has discovered a way to interest students in manufacturing: through their stomachs.

With support from the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, the Chester, Illinois–based private-label food manufacturer recently chose the winner of its second annual “Create A Crunch” cereal-design contest for local high schoolers.

  • “It’s critically important for our nation’s future that we attract the next generation of creators and makers, dreamers and doers who want to make our world a better place to live,” said IMA President and CEO Mark Denzler. “‘Create A Crunch’ is a fun and innovative way to encourage kids to explore all facets of manufacturing.”

A winner of an idea: The contest, which each year poses an essay-writing question on a manufacturing-related topic, came about when Gilster-Mary Lee was brainstorming ways to participate in National Manufacturing Month, which is October.

  • “We were looking for a way to participate that would be meaningful and get kids—students—excited” about manufacturing, said President and CEO Tom Welge, a direct descendant of the company’s founding Gilster family, which started the firm in the late 19th century as the Gilster Milling Company.
  • “We’d done a lot of celebrity cereals [such as a recent one featuring college basketball star Caitlin Clark], and they’re really popular. So I thought, why not involve students in the creation of a product and turn it into a way to educate them about manufacturing, maybe focusing on a particular topic in the industry we believe is important?”

An educational opportunity: “Create A Crunch” was born and is already off to a roaring start. In 2022, the contest garnered more than 300 entries from students throughout Illinois and Missouri. In 2023, it received more than 400.

  • In addition to getting to choose the type of cereal, name and box design for their limited-run branded breakfast food, each year’s winner gets 2,500 boxes for their school, which “they can sell in a fundraiser, donate, whatever they want,” Welge said.
  • The most recent winner, a senior at Notre Dame Regional High School in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, chose a blue, fruit-flavored ring-shaped cereal, which will be called “Bulldog Bites” in honor of her school’s mascot. The cereal boxes are slated for delivery in April.
  • The 2023 writing prompt: What are the best things artificial intelligence can do for manufacturing, and do you think there are any things we should be concerned about?

Tough choices: Once the entry deadline has passed, a panel from Gilster-Mary Lee reads and rates every submission, then develops a short list of finalists. It sends these 10 names to the IMA for winner selection.

  • The IMA has a difficult task before it in choosing the best submission, Welge added.
  • “It’s not easy, but an understanding of the question is key, as is originality,” Welge continued. “The best essays [are] the ones that do the research and really put some thought behind it.”

More than a contest: Gilster-Mary Lee and the IMA are hoping that thought will transcend the contest and translate to participation in the manufacturing industry, which is in serious need of talent nationwide.

  • In Illinois, the industry employs more than 650,000 people, Denzler said, making it “the single largest share of our economy.”

Perception change: “Create A Crunch” seems to be opening kids’ eyes to modern manufacturing, Welge said.

  • “I think we have more visibility [now] into what we do,” he told us. “We produce for wholesalers across the U.S. and outside as well. So this is a way for us to pull back the curtain a bit and let people know there’s pretty big-sized manufacturer in this rural area, and we’re looking for talent.”

Up next: The contest may have started with cereal, but don’t be surprised if other foods come into play, said Welge, whose company also makes pancake mix, macaroni and cheese and many other convenience foods.

  • “Should we do ‘Make A Mac’ next year? We’re not ruling anything out.”
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