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Michele's Granola grows from kitchen hobby into crunchy success

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A wall with one long window separates the Timonium office of Michele's Granola from its bakery space, but neither glass nor drywall can keep out the intoxicating smell: a mix of vanilla, coconut and sunflower seeds, among other ingredients.

When complimented on the aroma, the business' founder and owner, Michele Thornett, smiled knowingly.

"We get that a lot," she said.

Wearing earth-toned clogs and a peasant skirt (which match her green eyes and red hair), Thornett looks like someone who should be into healthy snack food. Instead of an office chair, she sits on a yoga ball.

Yet Thornett, 34, didn't know how to make granola before she started experimenting in her house eight years ago. Now, her 25-member staff churns out 1,500 bags per day, distributing to grocery stores such as Wegman's and Whole Foods but also Goucher University, Under Armour, the Four Seasons hotel and smaller, local coffee shops.

The motto of Michele's Granola is "Profits, People and Planet." The company's working on becoming certified organic, which requires using 70 percent organic ingredients. Thornett said the company has already reached this standard; pending the approval of the Department of Agriculture, Thornett will be able to add a label to the package stating, "Made with organic ingredients," hopefully by summer 2013.

Thornett grew up in the area (she went to Winston Churchill High School in Montgomery County), in a family where food was a "community event." On Saturday mornings, her grandparents made pancakes and the whole family sat down at the table to eat them, as WTOP radio played in the background. She was always the one who baked the birthday cake and clipped recipes from magazines.

"I loved making people happy through food," she said.

She only became fascinated with granola after college, when she spent the summers of 2002 and 2003 on Martha's Vineyard. She'd graduated from Duke University in 2000, and friends who she'd met in Ireland during her post-college travels frequented the island and convinced her to spend a few months there as a waitress to make some extra money.

The Black Dog bakery on the island made bread, muffins, pastries and other goods from scratch — including large, crunchy granola bars.

"I was just obsessed; it was the perfect food," Thornett said. "It had everything I needed in it, and I loved the flavor."

When she returned home in fall of 2003, Thornett began making her own granola and giving it to friends and family as a gift. By 2005, she found a job working for a bakery called Takoma Kitchens, which sold goods at the Takoma Park Farmers Market on Sunday mornings. The bakery's customers would ask for granola, but it was one of the few items Takoma Kitchens didn't make.

In April 2006, Thornett began selling her granola in partnership with the bakery, and began leasing her first commercial kitchen space from the company. There, she introduced her "original" flavor — a recipe she uses to this day. Pumpkin Spice wasn't far behind.

"I tried to take it away because I wanted to do a seasonal thing," Thornett said. "Customers kept coming back and asking for it, so we make it year-round."

Michele's Granola now produces five year-round flavors — original, pumpkin spice, cinnamon raisin, cherry chocolate and ginger hemp — but only makes three per day to ensure freshness.

"I knew how to make something at home, but learning how to then multiply the volume of that and maintain the homemade integrity of the product, that's been an ongoing learning process," Thornett said.

She hired her first full-time office employee a year and a half ago and now has three production managers and three people in sales and distribution, which lets her focus more on the company's business side. But she still loves to get her hands in the granola.

Morning is the busy, good-smelling time. From 7 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., the ingredients are mixed and laid out on giant baking pans, which then go into even larger ovens, affectionately named Hobart and Baxter, after the manufacturer.

"I won't tell you which one's our favorite," Thornett said.

The afternoon is devoted to packaging and labeling — all done by hand. A label must go on the front and back of boxes; Thornett noted with some pride that there's only been one time where a pumpkin spice label has ended up on the front and an original on the back.

Michele's Granola sells wholesale in six states, but the company has shipped directly to 43 of them, which they mark with thumbtacks on a large wall map.

Bill O'Connor has his granola shipped all the way to Texas. He eats it daily and always saves a little bit for Sweetie Pie, the wild deer who comes to his ranch for breakfast. Her favorite foods used to be grapes, raisins and wheat Chex, but when O'Connor introduced the granola into her diet, she went for that first.

"After you taste [Michele's], every other granola I've tasted is like eating mulch," he said. "If you talk to her, tell her I'd probably be around 3 or 4 pounds lighter if I didn't eat her granola, but there's some things you've just got to do."

The Baltimore Coffee and Tea Company, located four doors down from Michele's Granola, sells Thornett's packages of granola and uses some in their oatmeal as well.

"We really like it because it's local," said Mary Romeo, the regional retail director. "Other granolas are good, but theirs is just exceptional."

Thornett is as concerned with the company's waste as its ingredients. One of her delivery trucks runs on recycled vegetable oil from Thornton's Pub in Locust Point, and its facility is 100 percent wind-powered. At least 40 percent of its waste is recyclable, and Thornett longs for a day when someone will invent completely compostable packaging.

Michele's Granola gives back to the community as well as the environment. The company was one of the first merchants to accept the Bnote, a local currency that was designed to strengthen the local economy. Thornett also donates 1 percent of her company's sales revenue to local food and hunger projects through GiveCorps, a local organization that crowdsources fundraising for non-profit organizations and allows donors to choose certain causes as their focus.

Thornett said the business is always evolving; she'd like to convert her second delivery truck from biodiesel to recycled vegetable oil. Also on her list: implementing employee wellness initiatives, such as paid volunteer days where the company closes the kitchen and goes out into the community to lend a hand.

"A lot of times, I wake up and say, 'What am I going to be today? What am I going to be next?'" Thornett said. "Because my role is always changing."

mcfischer@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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