A party joke has grown into a serious venture -- or as serious as you can be, when you've named your signature product Crapola granola -- for Brian and Andrea Strom, the husband-and-wife team behind Brainstorm Bakery in Ely, Minn.

The Stroms had never owned a business or given it much thought before Brian's late-night wisecrack about making cranberry-apple granola and calling it Crapola. They ended up pursuing the idea, however, getting the name trademarked and eventually testing recipes in their wood-fired kitchen stove.

"The business kind of followed the idea of the granola," said Brian Strom, who also likes to be known as chief cereal officer. "This is what happens when you follow that dream."

Initial sales at a local farmers market and arts festival were encouraging, and an on-air mention by Jay Leno just a few months after the product launched in 2007 generated wider interest. Flush with that early success, Crapola now is in more than 100 retail locations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, California and Oregon. Local retailers include Linden Hills Co-op, Kowalski's Markets and Electric Fetus.

Crapola combines five organic grains, nuts, dried cranberries and apples, sweetened with maple syrup and honey, promising, according to the package, that it "makes even weird people regular." The other Brainstorm Bakery granolas, the cranberry-orange variety evocatively named Number Two and the recently added Red, White and Blueberry, also are available from retailers and the company's website.

The Stroms mix their granola by hand in small batches, oven-roast it and package it in their small Ely production facility. They're the only employees aside from seasonal help. Last year's sales topped $200,000.

Their experience as apprentices on small organic farms near Ely, the northern Minnesota town where they've lived for 10 years, helped the Stroms source ingredients. Before going full-time into the granola business, the Stroms had worked in a variety of jobs. Andrea Strom was employed at a pet clinic while her husband had done construction work, painted houses and served as a guide, given their location in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

A saturated market

The Stroms developed the brand on their own and have kept it personal, dressing up for an "American Gothic" parody on the Crapola package.

In a few cases, the Crapola name has met with skepticism from retailers. In others, it helps the granola sell as a novelty item or gag gift. Regardless, the edgy approach means the granola inside the package has to be good, Strom said.

"If we had just called it Brian and Andrea's Delicious Granola, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be having this conversation," he said. "We would have already peaked. But the granola market is so saturated that the name brand has helped us stand out, I think, and continues to as more and more people learn about it."

To help more retailers and customers learn about their granola, the Stroms are transitioning from largely marketing the product themselves to working with brokers, distributors and representatives who can help them get it into stores, Strom said. On several occasions, customer requests have persuaded grocers to stock Crapola.

Trying to scale up

As demand grows, one challenge the couple is addressing is how to scale up production, what equipment they'll need and how to finance that expansion -- all while maintaining the product's homespun appeal. The Stroms also are considering product extensions and exploring interest from overseas markets.

"We're making an artisan-quality, premium product," Strom said. "We're trying to steer it away from the assembly-line atmosphere and keep it real, made by hand, made by a person."

Crapola, available packaged and in bulk, is a top seller at the 7,400-member Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis, said Allie Mentzer, member services manager.

"It's lightly sweet, and it definitely tastes wholesome," said Mentzer, noting that customers who want to increase Omega 3 fatty acids in their diets appreciate that it contains organic flax seed. "In a lot of granolas you'll find in conventional stores, you'll find fake berries or artificial flavors. We don't allow that stuff in our store, and it's always good when a local company can provide us with the real deal."

Crapola enjoyed strong holiday sales and steady recurring sales at Kowalski's Markets in the Twin Cities, according to Debbie Leland, natural and specialty foods buyer.

"We ran out over the holidays," Leland said. "We had a run on it as a gag gift. On the other side, it's also still a very nice, all-natural, healthy product. Natural granola has pretty much overtaken the natural cereal segment but not all of them taste good, and they're not all healthy and clean. This one is local, it's healthy, it's clean and it tastes good. I'm a Crapola fan."

The expert says: Anita Nelson, president of IN Food Marketing & Design, a marketing communications agency in Minneapolis that specializes in working with food-related companies, said getting into reputable retailers and building a significant customer base has been a significant accomplishment for the Stroms.

An edgy brand such as Crapola can work, Nelson said, as long as everything the company does is consistent with that playful, self-deprecating approach. She suggested refreshing the packaging and changing the name and logo to "Crappola," with an extra 'p' to strengthen the tie to the cranberry-and-apple recipe.

"It's a premium product, and with a premium product you do want the name and the packaging to be consistent," Nelson said. "It may be a challenge if the nature of the product does not align with the name and the packaging. I can't think of any food products that are this self-deprecating. Obviously, something is working for them, but my recommendation for them is making sure that the premium nature of the product is also coming through with the packaging."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.