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Eighteen years ago, GrandyOats was a one-person operation producing small batches of granola out of a 105-year-old dairy barn in rural Brownfield.
Today, the company is growing by more than 25% a year, employs 20 people and continues to hire. In November it will move to a site in Hiram that is nearly double in size and is equipped with state-of-the-art solar technology expected to fully power the entire operation. Revenues have grown from $115,000 in 2000 to $5 million today.
In a sense, the company's greatest strength is consistency. It is rooted in a steadfast “crunchy” customer base that began demanding wholesome, organic food in the 1970s. In recent years, a more mainstream pursuit of healthy lifestyle has been a setting for GrandyOats to grow.
“Thirty years ago, someone might be living a healthy lifestyle, but people didn't get it and they made fun of it,” says Nat Peirce, co-owner and president. “Now they get it. Look at how many people are so much more active in so many more ways. Being 'granola' is someone who lives an active and healthy lifestyle. It's evolved.”
Founded by Sarah Carpenter and Penny Hood in 1979 in Farmington, GrandyOats (the founders' play on 'grandiose') was a small operation, says Peirce.
Peirce discovered the company in 1997. He was raised in Scarborough, graduated from the University of New Hampshire's hospitality management program and eventually landed back in Maine to open a vegetarian bakery and café in Bridgton. He was looking for a wholesale granola supplier when a friend recommended GrandyOats. Peirce met with Carpenter and Hood, learned their system and, within six weeks, bought the company.
GrandyOats benefitted then and continues to benefit from the original owners' relationship with Bread & Circus, which had stores in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and was at one time the largest natural food retailer in the Northeast. Whole Foods Market acquired Bread & Circus in 1992, but continues to rely on GrandyOats as a supplier.
“As Whole Foods grew, we grew,” Peirce says. “That was the biggest asset of GrandyOats when I purchased it. [Carpenter and Hood] had been selling to Bread & Circus since Bread & Circus opened. Because of that, we've been selling to stores in Boston for 35 years. They have the same classic granola in their bulk bins today that they did then.”
In 1998, Peirce reconnected with a friend from college, Aaron Anker, who also graduated from the hospitality program. Anker was working in sales and marketing with Portland-based Fresh Samantha, an organic juice company later acquired by Odwalla. They ran into each other at a concert in Portland and decided to join forces. They gave themselves tongue-in-cheek corporate titles: Peirce, as “head honcho,” and Anker as “chief granola officer.'
“There was symmetry in the sense that he had the organizational capacity to run the facility and I had the sales and marketing mind,” says Anker. “He was already established in Whole Foods and had started conversations with Hannaford, so it was easy for me to build on.”
Today, GrandyOats products are in in 200 Whole Foods stores, as well as Hannaford and other supermarkets.
In addition to granola, GrandyOats sells trail mixes, roasted nuts and hot cereals. Products are sold in bulk bins and pre-packaged.
GrandyOats has also developed food service clients such as universities and restaurants. And it continues to service small customers.
“That's one of the things that sets us apart,” says Peirce. “We work with large distributors, but we also deal directly with small accounts. We're pretty flexible because that's the way we've always done it. We still make the product the same way, in the same batch size that's always been done. We just make more batches. So the product integrity is always intact. We're not a big machine in a big factory, even though we put out a lot of material. We just employ more people.”
GrandyOats sweetens its products with honey, maple syrup, agave syrup or fruit juice. The company never uses products that contain antibiotics, synthetic hormones, toxic pesticides or GMOs. It was certified organic in 2004 and non-GMO in 2014.
“People who know what they're looking for, if they read a label, they say, 'This is the real deal,'” Peirce says.
In 2013, Peirce and Anker realized they had outgrown their 6,500-square-foot barn in Brownfield.
“We've been out of space for a while, yet still managed to keep growing 25% to 30% a year,” says Peirce. “We're putting out at least 30 times the product than when we started.”
By mid-November, they should be relocated to the 10,600-square-foot former Hiram Elementary School, about 15 minutes from the current site. Constructed in 1979, the school was vacated in 2009 during Maine's school consolidation. They built an additional 2,000-square-foot warehouse and installed a custom-designed solar system on the grounds, consisting of 288 photovoltaic modules, to generate more than 95,000 kilowatt hours and power 100% of the company's energy needs, powering ovens, computers, fork lifts, lights, heating and cooling. It's expected to offset over 145,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year. The owners say this will make GrandyOats the first net zero food production facility in New England.
They'll continue to hire sales people and the production team will continue to grow, Peirce says.
“The staff grows no matter what, because we're growing,” he adds.