Craft beers and hand-roasted coffee are the current local food stars, but one humble product is quietly stealing a little of the spotlight: granola.
In an area where food entrepreneurship is thriving, granola is poised to boom, and several Minnesota companies are leading the way. Cereal variations focus on food trends such as gluten-free blends, locally sourced ingredients and hip packaging, creating an array of choices in the breakfast foods aisle of specialty groceries and supermarkets alike.
Why are there so many crunchy-meets-chewy options on the local food landscape? The reasons are multilayered, just like granola itself.
One of the strongest factors for the breadth of local granola choices is the robust start-up climate here for such products as Bliss, WholeMe, Barnstormer, Crapola and Breakfast in Heaven from the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis. Technology ventures usually get the most buzz, but the Twin Cities area hosts an array of smaller food-based ideas as well.
Resources such as Kindred Kitchen’s commercial kitchens are broadening the entrepreneurial landscape in general, but many of the new granola makers started in their home kitchens, tinkering around with recipes. When they decided to make the leap, they found a business community packed with fellow start-ups.
For example, the Ely-based granola called Crapola (a cheeky nod toward its first flavor, cranberry apple, as well as its fiber effect) has found such support for its products in the past five years that the husband-wife founders, Brian and Andrea Strom, were able to quit their day jobs and devote their time to granola making. Recently, Crapola’s distribution widened considerably when Cub Foods picked it up.
“There’s been so much support for us, and so much encouragement,” said Brian Strom. “We’re trying to create a premium product, and people see that, so it fuels our growth and now we get fan mail. That’s how committed people are to our granola.”
Mix, cook, package
For many granola makers, it’s the simplicity of the product that helped propel them from hobbyists to full-time granola makers.
Though every cereal boasts its own blend of ingredients, the process is fairly straightforward: Combine items like oats, nuts and dried fruits, and toss them with a sweetener that acts as a kind of edible glue, such as honey or maple syrup. Spread the result on a large cookie sheet, bake until browned and chunky, and you’re done.
When prepared on a large scale, it makes for a nice business, notes Ben Wolfgramm, who started Minneapolis-based Barnstormer Granola with his wife, Audrey. The name refers to stunt pilots of the 1920s, and is also a nod to Ben’s professional life as a pilot. More than that, though, it implies a sense of adventure, which is what he thinks Barnstormer is about.
“We have an adventurous spirit and both of us wanted to be entrepreneurs. It just happened that Audrey also makes absolutely fantastic granola,” he said. “We wanted to share it with friends and then we thought, ‘Why not share it with everybody?’ ”
Sometimes, serendipity is part of the equation. For the Birchwood Cafe, the granola on the menu took off as a product 18 years ago after customers wanted it available in bulk, eventually landing in local co-ops. “Some people have never been to the cafe, but they eat our granola every day,” said owner Tracy Singleton.
Paying attention to health
Apart from a supportive environment and low complexity in production, the boom in local granola takes advantage of consumers’ interest in health. Farmers markets are booming, community-supported agriculture is taking off in a major way, and products that are nutritious — and tasty — are finding a growing audience.
Customers are willing to pay more — sometimes much more — for specialty products that are put together from sustainable ingredients. Locally made granola, for example, averages 50 to 75 cents per ounce, compared with commercial brands that cost about 15 cents per ounce.
“People are just more concerned about what they’re eating, and they want to feel good about how they’re fueling their bodies,” said Mary Kosir, who co-founded local food company WholeMe with business partner Krista Steinbach. The pair got started after Kosir’s husband was diagnosed with early-onset diabetes, which prompted a major change in the couple’s eating habits. Steinbach, a former pastry chef, was looking for a new project after moving out of the bakery business.
Their granola-type creation, EatMe Cereal, is not only gluten-free, but also grain-free, concocted only from nuts, seeds, coconut and locally sourced honey. That’s likely to make them popular with those following the Paleo diet (which excludes grains, dairy and more), a growing trend nationally and in the metro area. “People are very aware of gluten-free these days, but grain-free is the next big thing,” Kosir said.
With the Paleo diet, grain-free living requires a focus on healthy fats and sustainably sourced protein, so EatMe concentrates on those, which makes them distinctive from other small-batch granolas, according to Steinbach.
“Some snacks and granolas will leave you crashing and burning in a few hours,” she said. “But because EatMe has a high ‘good fat’ level and a great amount of protein, it keeps you energized for hours.”
From the neighborhood
Local ingredient sourcing is also a huge trend in the Twin Cities, said Lesley Powers, who started Bliss Gourmet Foods about five years ago. She sells her granola and muesli at farmers markets, to emphasize her commitment to local farmers. Displaying a “pride in provenance” sets Bliss apart, she believes.
“Every bag of granola I sell is supporting 12 local producers,” she said. “It’s exciting to talk to my honey and maple syrup people and find out how the season is going for them. I think it’s important to be connected in that way. And I think customers want to be connected, too.”
As local granola makers continue to thrive and find more shelf space at markets, look for muesli to begin making an impact as well. Not only does Bliss feature a version of the cereal — which differs from granola since it’s uncooked and doesn’t use sweeteners like maple syrup or honey — but Minneapolis-based Seven Sundays is finding growth with its homemade muesli. Founder Hannah Barnstable says that she and her husband first had the cereal while on their honeymoon in New Zealand, and got hooked. When they came back to Minnesota, all they could find were stale, expensive European imports. So, Barnstable quit her job and started making her own.
“I think muesli is ready to catch on,” she says. “Granola has always been the sexier category, but I think people are looking for an alternative that’s not as sweet.”
While muesli finds its bowls, local granola makers are likely to do some innovation of their own. Singleton has been considering expanding her granola line with more options, and the owners of Bliss, Crapola, Barnstormer and WholeMe note that they’re constantly playing around with new combinations. That means co-ops and other grocers will probably need to make more room in their breakfast food aisles, and shoppers might consider changing up their morning choices.
“There are so many fun options coming out that fit into new, healthy lifestyles,” said Kosir. “Plus, you’re buying local, so you can feel good about that, too.”
Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis freelance writer.