To get to the General Mills cereal and flour plant in Buffalo, just follow the smell of toasted Cheerios.

Or, when the plant is offline, drive south on Michigan Avenue and take the lift bridge over the Buffalo River onto Kelly Island.

There you’ll find one of the last working grain elevators in Buffalo, standing sentry at a complex that sprawls over 27 acres and produces iconic cereal brands and Gold Medal flour for sale across the Northeast and eastern Canada.

Its continued operation is a manufacturing success story in a city and region that has seen too many factories shut their doors in recent decades.

“I think if you talk to the employees here in the plant they’ll tell you we make the best products in the world,” David Tincher, a West Virginia native who has served as plant manager for 6½ years, said recently in a rare interview, and tour of the plant. “And we take huge pride in making sure that every time a consumer gets a bowl of Cheerios from Buffalo, it’s perfect,”

The oldest structure on the General Mills property, which is bordered by the Buffalo River and the City Ship Canal, dates to 1903, and many of the 400 current plant workers have parents or grandparents who baked cereal and milled flour on the site.

The facility still brings in much of its grain by ship, and it still mills flour and bakes cereal in a process with roots in Buffalo’s heyday as a grain market and bustling industrial port.

Though the Buffalo plant must compete with other General Mills facilities, employees say the plant can remain viable as long as it continues to modernize its production system while maintaining a solid safety record and a collaborative relationship with its union workers.

“Our future is within our control,” said Tincher, 45, a fourth-generation coal miner who left the mines and entered the food industry after a stint in the Air Force and Air National Guard.

Flour-making began at the General Mills property in 1904, under the Washburn Crosby brand, a name still visible on a soaring chimney stack on the site. The grain elevator is the oldest building still in use, and a trek to the top offers expansive views of downtown Buffalo, north toward Niagara Falls and southwest along the Lake Erie shore.

Construction on the current cereal building began in 1939, but a fire ripped through the structure on Feb. 15, 1940, one week before it was set to open. The fireboat William S. Grattan, now the Edward M. Cotter, poured water on the blaze, which delayed the start of production of CheeriOats until October 1941. It was the world’s first, oat-based, ready-to-eat cereal, Tincher said.

Over the years, General Mills has modernized the plant and its production process, with computers and automation taking on tasks previously done by hand. But much remains the same, with grain still brought by rail – or ship from Duluth, Minn. – and stored in a grain elevator for later use.

A family affair

A good portion of the workforce followed their fathers, or grandfathers, to the plant.

Raymond Gottstine worked at General Mills from 1948 to 1994, starting in the mailroom before retiring as a packaging maintenance manager, and regularly regaled his eight children at dinner with descriptions of his work day. He died in 1995.

“My father lived and breathed General Mills,” said Ron Gottstine.

The younger Gottstine worked seasonally at the plant in college, cleaning floors and running equipment, and went full time in 1986. He now is a project engineer whose duties include training other workers.

“In Buffalo, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else,” said Gottstine, who has two teenage sons. “Hopefully they’ll follow in my footsteps, just like I followed in my father’s.”

Few outsiders have the chance to see the plant that is part of the Gottstines’ DNA.

General Mills doesn’t offer public tours – there are only about half a dozen spaces in the visitor parking section – and rarely grants the news media access to the Buffalo plant.

“We compete against some of the largest and the best food companies in the world and we keep our playbook close to the vest,” said Tincher, who spent more than two hours answering questions but frequently began his responses with some variation on “I can’t tell you that.”

While General Mills wouldn’t reveal every product that is made at the Buffalo facility, Tincher said the plant mills Gold Medal flour and makes Cheerios and Lucky Charms cereal, and cases of Honey Nut Cheerios and Total cereals were spotted stacked in the warehouse.

Tincher said the process for making Cheerios is a simple one “because we have so much science behind it over the years.”

He said workers take an oat flour base and mix it into a dough that is cooked and pushed through an extruder.

Without getting into details about the conclusion of the process, he said, “They pop, like popcorn, and that’s what makes them a Cheerio.”

Technicians closely monitor the density and other attributes of the Cheerios pieces to ensure consistency.

“If the piece weight is off, they know within a matter of minutes,” Tincher said.

The plant also has to keep a close eye on the ratio of oat pieces to marshmallow bits, or marbits in company lingo, in every box of Lucky Charms.

There’s a code on each box of General Mills cereal, and those made in Buffalo begin with the letters “BU.” Employees look for the code when they travel and they scrutinize the cereal aisle whenever they go shopping.

“My wife pretty much refuses to go to the grocery store with me,” Tincher said with a laugh.

A quiet contributor

General Mills tries to engage with, and reflect, the community. The company is a major donor to the Food Bank of Western New York, contributing 1,000 cases of cereal each month, and Tincher is a board member.

“They’re just so humble about their community work,” said Marylou Borowiak, the Food Bank’s president and CEO.

Many Buffalonians feel a strong tie to the plant. One local company called Born in Buffalo was inspired enough to design and sell “My city smells like Cheerios” T-shirts. Tincher said he did buy a few of the shirts.

“Almost to a person, when they find out where I work one of the things they say is, ‘Oh, thanks, the downtown just smells wonderful because of you guys,’ ” Tincher said.

Most plant workers are represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union or the International Longshoremen’s Association.

The grain millers’ union is by far the larger, representing 343 cereal and flour workers, said Tom Bingler, business representative for BCTGM, Local 36G, who worked in the flour mill from 1980 to 2002, when he took a leave to serve the local.

Bingler said employment at the plant in the early 1980s was about double what it is today, and General Mills made a large number of layoffs around 1985, but he said the plant hasn’t cut any significant number of jobs since.

This consistent employment at General Mills contrasts with the slow, steady decline of the local manufacturing sector. In October 1990, Erie and Niagara counties had 92,800 manufacturing jobs, accounting for 16.7 percent of the jobs in those counties, according to John Slenker, the state Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo. By October of this year, the number of manufacturing jobs had fallen to 52,700, which make up just 9.6 percent of jobs.

General Mills, in defying this trend, proves this region and its workforce are well-suited to the advanced manufacturing that predominates today’s industrial economy, said Craig Turner, a vice president with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. “Manufacturing relies on a mindset and a work ethic – something we have here,” he said.

Staying around

Making sure the plant is well-positioned to adapt to changing market conditions, or consumer demand, is key to the plant’s future, Tincher said.

Automated, driverless vehicles load and unload some cases of cereal in the warehouse, where row after row of cardboard cartons holding boxes of cereal rise dozens of feet high and extend for hundreds of yards into the distance.

The overhead lighting was converted to energy-efficient LED lights, Tincher said. “We’re always looking for ways to eliminate losses and eliminate waste,” he said.

The General Mills property, which has an assessed value of $10.5 million according to city and county records, receives low-cost power from the New York Power Authority.

Tincher and Turner said the plant is ideally located, accessible to rail and water and convenient to major markets in the Northeast, Ontario and Quebec.

Turner, who has toured the Buffalo plant, said most cereal factories today are built on one level to streamline the production process. The Buffalo plant is “updated, but still antiquated,” he said, and it’s a sign of the value of the location and the workforce that General Mills has continued to produce cereal and flour here. “It’s really a great story,” Turner said.

Tincher declined to give specifics on the plant’s production levels, but he said if the number of boxes of cereal produced annually were laid end to end, they would circle the globe.

“Cereal, it’s a core business for General Mills. As is flour. I’d say, over the last 10 years we’ve done OK,” Tincher said.

The Buffalo plant is a medium-sized General Mills facility. The company employs a set of metrics to measure plant performance, and Tincher said Buffalo tends to rank in the top tier of General Mills properties when compared with its peers. When the plant scores well, each employee gets two free cases of cereal per quarter, Tincher said.

“Buffalo is still a good place to make cereal. It’s a good place to make flour. And I believe, if we as a plant here continue to do the right things and make sure that we are competitive and efficient, that we will be a good place long into the future,” Tincher said.