The owner of Michele's Granola briefly doubted her decision years ago to start her own business — and for good reason. A pricey commercial oven delivered to her new bakery in Curtis Bay was left on the sidewalk. And it was much too big to fit through the front door.
"Was this a good life decision?" Michele Tsucalas found herself thinking about her plunge into food manufacturing.
Nearly a decade and four new ovens later, the entrepreneur who once sold home-baked granola at farmers markets now oversees production of 12,000 pounds a week of the crunchy breakfast favorite and snack at a new, larger Timonium factory.
After operating for five years in a small, constrained space, also in Timonium, Michele's found itself with more business than it could handle and no way to increase production. In April, the company invested $500,000 in a 10,500-square-foot facility on Greenspring Drive, expanding to 27 workers and leaving room for growth.
"There's a lot of opportunity for the company," Tsucalas said. "There are a lot more consumers out there who haven't tried our products."
The bags of granola in flavors such as cinnamon raisin and cherry chocolate are shipped to more than 350 stores, including chains such as Whole Foods, Wegmans, The Fresh Market and MOM's Organic Market, along with coffee shops, specialty stores and organic markets. The company also sells online, offering a 12-ounce bag for $6.99 and 5-pound sacks for $32.99.
"The product is doing very well. Customers love it," said Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for Wegmans, which sells four of five varieties and a seasonal flavor in 21 stores in Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey and hopes to expand to all 88 stores next year. "The unique flavor profiles are very appealing."
Demand is growing because of "people being more concerned with what they're eating," said Tsucalas, who declined to disclose sales. "They want to know where their food is coming from. It's an old concept that's coming back again. ... They're willing to spend a little more for things that taste better."
In a commercial kitchen filled with the unmistakable scents of baking, the process starts with raw ingredients that fill large plastic totes — organic rolled oats, coconut, almonds, sunflower seeds and brown sugar. Ingredients are blended in a large mixer, weighed in bowls and emptied onto flat pans. Workers in white smocks and red aprons spread granola in the pans by hand at long steel tables.
Workers slide the pans onto racks that are wheeled into floor-to-ceiling-sized ovens. Products are packed and shipped to stores from the on-site warehouse within weeks.
Tsucalas, a Potomac native and 2000 economics graduate of Duke University, had taken time off from a first job to travel when she discovered fresh-baked granola bars at a bakery in Martha's Vineyard. After relocating to Washington, where she worked as a fundraiser for a nonprofit, she missed the bakery's granola enough to start experimenting with her own. Friends and family tried it and suggested she sell it.
She looked into the farmers markets but found it tough to break in without a commercial food license. Instead she started working on weekends for a baking company that sold at a farmers market in Takoma Park, where she eventually offered her granola alongside the bakery's bread. In spring 2006, she sold her first bag of granola.
"It just snowballed," she said.
By 2008, after having leased space from the baking company to make granola part-time, she decided to quit her job at the nonprofit and concentrate on her own business.
She found a 1,000-square-foot former pizzeria in Curtis Bay where she set up shop. After the hiccup with the commercial oven delivery, which her sole full-time employee managed to disassemble and reassemble in the shop, she launched Michele's full time. Using her original home recipe, still in use today, Tsucalas scaled up the manufacturing, modeling the operation after the baker where she had worked.
She remembered thinking: "Wouldn't it be great if I could make a living doing this."
She outgrew the Curtis Bay space in two years. After five years in the first Timonium site, Tsucalas turned to Baltimore County economic development officials for help finding a larger space. She also found she qualified for help buying equipment and inventory with a $250,000 low-interest loan through a new county program that provides loans to small minority-, woman- or veteran-owned businesses.
A consultant with the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership helped design her new commercial kitchen's floor plan, allocating space and determining where to place equipment.
"The business has just been steadily growing," said Tsucalas, which allowed her to accomplish a goal stemming from her fundraising days — to be on the giving, rather than asking, side of a charity.
Michele's now donates 1 percent of sales to Baltimore-based nonprofits with food-related missions.
Claudia Crowder, regional grocery coordinator for MOM's Organic Market, one of Michele's first wholesale customers, summed up the appeal of a product sold in all of its 14 stores, seven in Maryland and the rest in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington.
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"It tastes really good. It sounds so simple, but I do think our customers do love local products and supporting local businesses," Crowder said.
She was working in MOM's Alexandria, Va., store when the product was first sold there in 2008, she recalled.
"We couldn't keep it on the shelf. It was just flying off," Crowder said. "There's a lot of granola out there. They bake theirs fresh on a weekly basis and deliver it. ... You get a sense they care about what they're putting in the bag."
Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for Washington-based trade group Food Marketing Institute, said retailers are increasingly looking for products such as Michele's — even in a category as crowded as granola — as consumers seek out products "that are better for you."
"Being wheat- and dairy-free resonates with consumers these days because everyone has such a special diet," he said. "Retailers like these niche manufacturers and specialty manufacturers, and, if they're local, even better. It helps with the sustainability message."