An Interview with Michele of Michele’s Granola

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers are a talented bunch that possess and add new skills to their lifestyle. If one of those skills is making a delicious homemade food product that you have thought of selling; read this interview to learn from someone who succeeded in the food-product market.

I first found Michele’s Granola at the Jones Falls Farmers Market in Baltimore. It’s hands down, the best granola I’ve ever had! Since that first taste in the spring of 2009, I’ve watched Michele’s Granola spread their wings and fly into over 500 stores in 23 states. Currently, customers in the Mid-Atlantic region to Texas can enjoy this excellent granola.

I recently met with Michele Tsucalas in her Timonium Maryland facility where she oversees the production of around 12,500 pounds of handmade granola each week. Forty employees lovingly make this crunchy mainstay of breakfast fans in an assortment of flavors like cinnamon raisin, original, ginger hemp, and others. What follows is a primer on how to take a food product idea to the masses. Whether you are thinking of just selling to farmer markets and small stores or going big time and getting bought out by one of the big players, a home-based food product can be a great business decision.

I hope you gain significant knowledge needed for a food-product launch from this interview. After that, the rest is up to you.

KJ: Do you have a professional background in cooking?

 Michele: I do not. I just have a strong passion for homemade foods going back to my childhood.

When did you start selling granola?

At the Takoma Park Farmer’s Market in April of 2006.

Were your early batches of granola you made for sale produced in a typical home kitchen?

Yes, I had been making granola in my apartment kitchen, and a friend suggested I consider selling it. Then I ended up getting a job for a baking company at the Takoma Park Farmers Market just as a weekend gig. Pretty much right away I noticed customers asking for granola and so I mentioned to the owners that I made my own. For the first few weeks of sales, I made the granola at home.

Why granola instead of some other food product?

Granola, as you know, is a whole lifestyle. I was attracted to that, and I did really love granola as a food. I found it to be, and still do, the perfect food. I had spent a summer in coastal New England waiting tables and would go to the neighborhood bakery every morning for breakfast. It was a scratch bakery and didn’t have very many of those where I grew up. They made fresh, out of the oven granola bars.

I’ve always loved granola, but these bars were like no other. After moving back home, I  missed that fresh-baked granola and started experimenting with my own recipes. What I came up with is our Original flavor today.

How many years of selling at farmers markets before you realized it was time to get your own production facility?

After working for this other baking company, they had a facility in Hyattsville. I leased from the baking company one day per week and was selling at more and more farmers markets. About a year in, I started looking for my own commercial kitchen. Around the end of 2007, I moved up to Baltimore, where the commercial real estate was more affordable, and found a small commercial kitchen space in south Baltimore. There weren’t any incubator kitchens around then, there’s several around now.

What tips on marketing could you share with someone wanting to start a home-based business similar to yours?

Well, we spent pretty minimally on the marketing. Because we started at the farmers market, we had that opportunity to be direct to the consumer and talk face-to-face about my products. I started the business on a shoestring and grew it bit by bit from there.

We’ve never really invested a lot into our marketing at all. Finding the right retailers to sell your products goes a long way. We’ve always focused on getting our products into people’s mouths and building a loyal fan base. We like to keep the branding simple and clean to convey the handmade quality of our products.

Did you fund your first facility from profits or did you need a loan?

I didn’t need a loan at first. With minimal investment, I was able to get started on my own.

After moving into the first facility in Baltimore, what did you find to be the biggest challenges?

Building a team and figuring out what my role would be. Also learning to scale up the recipe for a commercial size batch.

What parting advice could you share with Mother Earth News readers on starting a home-base food products business?

I got to the point of a really big hobby job selling at the farmers market, and thought that if I don’t give this a go full-time, I might regret it. If you try in a really simple and honest way, it can’t hurt to try.

Do one thing and do it better than anyone else. If you know what you make is special and unique, other people will catch onto that very quickly. While you’re trying it, read and understand the fine print, but don’t let it hold you back. Don’t think about all the red tape and the permitting process; just get started.

Chances are this interview with Michele prompts you into action with your own home-based food product. Michele said a customer at the farmer’s market told her, “I used to think about taking my grandmother’s cookie recipe and start a business with it but never did. I wish I had and regretted not doing it.”

My advice is to jump right in; there’s room for more tasty food products. And if you need inspiration but can’t buy Michele’s Granola where you live, you can buy it onlinehere to taste for yourself a successful product that started small and is still growing today.

Kurt Jacobsohas been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt’s travel blog, Read all of Kurt’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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