By Lorrie Baumann
If you happen to see Aaron Anker tooling around at the wheel of a Volkswagen bus, don’t let good manners keep you from calling him a granola to his face. He won’t mind. “We are who we are,” he says. “We make granola, but we also drive our VW buses, and when you meet our staff, you’ll know why we have all been called granolas at some time in our life. We are authentic. We are who we say we are.”
Anker is a co-owner and Chief Granola Officer at GrandyOats, a Maine maker of organic cereals and snacks that’s just finished its third straight year with more than 25 percent annual growth. Over the past year, the company achieved 28 percent growth and made 1.2 million pounds of organic granola, trail mix and roasted nuts and generated $5.3 million in sales.
GrandyOats is also just settling into a state-of-the-art 100 percent solar powered facility that will make the company the first net zero food production facility in New England. The new facility is located in Hiram, Maine, where it’s adding 21 to the only 39 jobs currently existing in the town of Hiram. “We are literally in the mountains, in the hills of Maine, way off the beaten path…. One of the things that’s happening in rural New England is that there isn’t much economic growth and people are migrating to the cities. A lot of these towns don’t have much going on,” Anker says. “We really enjoy being able to employ people. We get people who are excited to join us, who are excited to be part of the company…. We’re helping the community grow. It’s a really nice feeling.”
Anker joined the company in 2000 after co-owner and Head Honcho, Nat Peirce, a college friend from the University of New Hampshire bought the company and invited him to join the partnership. The two have pursued their goals of creating a healthy, good place for people to work and keeping the organic integrity of their products. Their ownership of the company and a strategy of gradual growth and reinvestment in the business frees them from having to meet investor goals as well, Anker says.
When GrandyOats outgrew its previous facility and Anker and Peirce went looking for new premises that would allow them to fulfill a dream of powering their operations with solar energy, they were fortunate to find a disused elementary school made available by consolidation of the local school district. The 8.5-acre site included more than an acre of space where the students used to play soccer and kickball and that’s now used as the site for 288 solar panels that are expected to produce an average of 95.622 kilowatt hours of electricity annually. That’s enough to offset 145,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year. “We looked at all the different options for space, including some that would have required cutting down trees, but that wasn’t the granola thing to do,” Anker says. “Revitalizing an old building was.”
Everything in the new building is powered with solar electricity, including the ovens, the forklifts, the heating and cooling. “We won’t have any petroleum on premises at all,” Anker says. “We’re really excited about it, and we’re the first food production facility in New England to do that.”
With its new plant, the company is ready to expand its distribution into additional retailers in California, Arizona and Nevada under the leadership of a new Western U.S. Account Manager, Becky LaFord. GrandyOats is already being sold in the South Pacific region of Whole Foods, and the product line is doing well in independent natural food stores and co-ops as well as Hannaford, Wegmans and MOM’s Organic Markets. All of those retailers are good partners for the brand, which does best when it’s in the hands of retailers who care about the integrity of the products they sell, value transparency about how the products are made and are willing to educate customers to help them make good decisions, Anker says.
GrandyOats is also offered in 75 college and university dining halls. “It’s been really a fun segment for us,” Anker says. “It helps universities communicate their commitment to healthy, quality offerings they can feel good about. It’s been positive for the schools, the students, and has helped grow our business and brand.”
The company’s product line comprises more than 40 SKUs of trail mixes, granolas, roasted nuts, and hot cereals. The Classic Granola has 11 ingredients. The trail mixes generally have seven or eight. Those ingredients don’t include either refined sugars, canola oil or corn. “With our granolas, you’re never going to find any refined sugar. We only sweeten with honey, maple syrup, fruit juice and agave. We use fruits and nuts and wholesome grains,” Anker says. “For instance, our Instant Oatmeal Cup: Why make something simple like oatmeal complicated? Organic oats, cranberries, raisins and apples – delicious oatmeal with 35 percent fruit. You can add whatever milk you want, whatever sweetener you want. That’s our philosophy – pure, clean food, 100 percent organic…. We make good, clean food. We don’t think it needs to be overly complicated.”