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Sea of Noodles Flows From Hulking Mill

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Its look is decidedly noir--a drab, grotesque hulk of a building that no one has ever bothered to paint.

The main tower, skinny enough to suggest a medieval rampart, rises 210 feet above the flat industrial sprawl surrounding it. Lower rooftops jut from its flanks, piled with air ducts and monstrous filters and a spidery array of pipes.

No sign--either on the roofs or the gray concrete facade--gives any hint as to who owns the building or why it is here, even though it is the tallest thing in Commerce and has been for half a century.

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The place exists for the purpose of milling flour, a process that goes on around the clock, seven days a week. Owned and operated by privately held Cargill Foods, the mill is not quite the world’s largest--even Cargill operates bigger ones elsewhere--but nonetheless it forms an imposing link in the elaborate food chain that feeds Los Angeles.

Gather up a single day’s output from the rollers and sifters and purifiers and you could make a bagel the size of the Rose Bowl. An average of 16 railroad cars come in, loaded with grain, on tracks bordering the mill. The grain gets hoisted in buckets to the top of the tower by a vertical conveyor and then is crushed, beaten and moisturized until 1.5 million pounds of flour comes out the bottom.

Trailer rigs line up to haul it away. A dozen major food companies use the enriched white flour for everything from cake mixes and breads to doughnuts and corn-dog batter. But most of it--from this mill, anyway--ends up as ramen noodles. Yes, ramen noodles, parceled out in foam cups with tiny packets of soup flavoring.

Untold millions of them are sold under several brand names. They fill store shelves throughout the city and are exported to Latin America and overseas.

“Now through February or March, that industry really picks up,” says mill superintendent Gary Evelo. “In the fall and winter people eat more soup. Pies and pastries, they also tend to take more flour during the holiday season.”

Except for occasional VIP customers and the families of employees, few outsiders ever get to explore the mill’s nearly windowless interior, a hard realm of concrete walls, thick steel doors and machinery so bizarre it seems part of some “Blade Runner” fantasy. Enter one room, for example, and you see nothing but a row of elevator-sized boxes, all suspended several feet above the floor and gyrating like belly dancers.

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These immense sifters take in partially ground flour from above and send it out again through a network of tubes below. The finished powder flows downward to storage bins. Larger granules go elsewhere for additional processing.

Tubes and pipes are everywhere, sometimes in tall, stalagmite-like formations. At some places you can look through clear plastic pneumatic ducts and see the flour blowing furiously toward some far destination. The blowers that create this wind fill a hot room where the noise is not merely loud enough for earplugs--it vibrates right through you.

One room contains banks of rolling mills. You can raise a metal housing, like lifting the hood of an old Chrysler, and watch the flour being crushed by automated rolling pins.

Descend to the deepest level of the bunker-like basement, and you can walk among the cone-shaped bottoms of the grain storage bins. Raw grain enters the plant here on an open conveyor belt before beginning its long climb to the top of the tower.

Ancient pulleys and belts and chain-drives seem to propel the mill’s every moving function. Computers are behind much of it, but they are less conspicuous than the valves that open when workers yank on ropes. Beneath the long west roof are 48 concrete silos, deep dungeons for storing grain. You can see inside them from the eighth floor by lifting a low row of manhole-like steel plates and shining a flashlight down to the grain reserves.

The mill was built in 1949 and is easily visible from the juncture of two freeways that came later: the Long Beach and Santa Ana. It stands like a monument to Los Angeles’ broad industrial core, a region once bursting with big factories and blue-collar jobs.

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Bethlehem Steel, Firestone, Ford, General Motors, Northrop, Rockwell--all operated major manufacturing plants at one time. Tens of thousands of middle-class families flocked to towns like Commerce, nearby Industry and South Gate because you could draw good wages and benefits with only a high school diploma.

Plant closures, however, dominated the headlines of the 1970s and 1980s. Cheaper foreign labor, automation and consolidation ruined life for many of those blue-collar workers.

Too young for retirement, too old to retrain, some simply gave up, broken men. “A lot of people cashed out of their homes and moved to other states,” says Jack Kyser, chief economist at the nonprofit Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., who tried to promote retraining programs.

Los Angeles remains a strong industrial hub despite losing a third of its manufacturing work force in 20 years. Some industries, such as milling, find an advantage in operating near the point of consumption. The four flour mills still operating here, including Cargill, are so bunched you can see them all from one rooftop on a clear day.

Much of the Cargill plant is automated--only 35 employees run it--but the mill also creates jobs and revenue for truck drivers, railroad workers, bakeries and ramen producers. The wheat comes mainly from Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and other Midwestern states. Hard red winter and hard white wheat are used for tortillas and ramen noodles. Hard red spring wheat is used for hearth breads and bagels.

“We’ll blend the wheats to get . . . certain finished flour characteristics . . . like blending different hues of paint,” Evelo says. “Our noodle guys, they look for a certain texture in the noodle. They don’t want slimy, gooey noodles. They all want different blends, even though they’re making the same thing.”

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Factory workers spend much of their time making blends, servicing equipment and cleaning up the dust. Flour dust settles constantly on floors, in cracks, on ledges, inside machines. It has to be swept up day in and day out, lest the mill become infested with flour beetles. The eggs travel in the grain and they can hatch anywhere flour dust is allowed to sit undisturbed.

“I’m not an entomologist, but they lay bunches of eggs,” Evelo says. “This is a challenge to every flour mill in the world.”

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