NORTHFIELD – Northfield's slogan is "cows, colleges and contentment." But the familiar aroma wafting from the Malt-O-Meal plant on Monday carried a whiff of discontent, as local residents digested the news that the 95-year-old company had been sold to Post Holdings for $1.15 billion.

Wall Street knows it as MOM Brands, and it's actually based in Lakeville. But in Northfield, it's still called Malt-O-Meal and it's still considered a hometown company.

Residents expressed shock and surprise that the family-owned enterprise would now become an entry on a corporate balance sheet. They described a company that treated its employees like family, offering good pay, profit-sharing and such generous benefits that there was always a waiting list for jobs at the plant.

"We all have friends who work there," said Bill Fossum, a lifelong Northfield resident and retired carpenter, pausing his game of three-handed cribbage at the local VFW post. "My mother-in-law worked there forever. When she had her 20-year anniversary, they gave her a beautiful paperweight with her name inscribed on it.

"They used to give the employees jackets at Christmas, and there'd be a $50 bill in the pocket."

The sale took everyone by surprise, residents said. Although more than 650 people work at the plant, no advance word leaked out.

"We just visited there a couple weeks ago," said Northfield Mayor Dana Graham, "myself, our economic development director and the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. And there was no mention of this.

"The news is always a shock," Graham said. "But it's way too early to be pessimistic. We're just going to hope for the best, and the city will be there to work with them."

On Monday, employees were reluctant to talk about the sale. Most of them kept walking when approached outside the plant. "I'd love to say something, but I'd also love to keep my job for a while," said one employee, hustling back inside from his lunch break.

"It was a surprise, but we're trying to look on the bright side," said another employee, climbing into her car at the end of her shift.

The Malt-O-Meal plant covers nearly 900,000 square feet and occupies more than 15 acres. It's one of Northfield's largest employers, along with St. Olaf and Carleton colleges. According to Rice County officials, the company is the county's third-largest taxpayer, behind Xcel Energy and Northern Natural Gas. The company paid $514,556 in taxes in 2013 and $445,616 in 2014.

Dennis Erickson of Northfield was a line manager at the plant; he left five years ago and is now retired. His son, Aaron, still works there.

"I've never worked at a place with so many happy employees," Erickson said. There was usually plenty of overtime. Employees could — and still can — take home three free bags of cereal every day. The plant draws workers from as far away as Rochester, Erickson said. Many of the people who worked for him were local farmers who put in a full day in the fields and then pulled a night shift at Malt-O-Meal.

"It makes me really nervous," Erickson said of the sale.

For nearly a century, the Malt-O-Meal plant has been a major contributor to the atmosphere of Northfield — in the most literal way. The aroma of cereal is as much a part of life in Northfield as the Cannon River that gave birth to the original milling company.

"You can always tell when they're doing Coco Roos," said Joan Spaulding, owner of the Hideaway coffee shop and wine bar downtown. News of the sale, she said, "came out of left field."

The family owners of the company haven't made grand philanthropic gestures over the years. No civic buildings carry their names. But there's a strong tradition of involvement in local activities by company managers and employees, Mayor Graham said.

"These are people who have brought up their families here and want to be involved in the community," Graham said.

Bill Blose knows the cereal business. He worked as a grain trader for Ralston-Purina and later worked in operations for Pillsbury. Blose retired 15 years ago and moved to Dennison, a small town outside Northfield, to farm and raise cattle. He said he's noticed that Malt-O-Meal has been spending a lot of money in recent years outside of Northfield.

"It's too soon to tell what will happen," Blose said. "But you look where they've been making their investments, and it's outside of Minnesota. I think I'd be nervous if I worked for them.

"That whole culture is going to change," he said. "Welcome to the big leagues."

Staff writer M.L. Smith contributed to this report.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402