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A Video Conversation with Michele Tsucalas, Founder and Owner of Michele’s Granola – Part 1

Small batch granola that leaves a positive impact on the environment and community

michele-tsucalasMichele Tsucalas is the founder and owner of Michele’s Granola, a Maryland-based company that bakes and sells handmade, small-batch cereal. The company’s line of products includes multiple flavors of granola as well as muesli and quinoa. As an organization committed to sustainable principles, Michele’s Granola sources GMO-free and organic ingredients, uses 100% recyclable and biodegradable packaging materials, and powers its facility completely through wind power as certified by Green-e. Additionally, the company is dedicated to generating a positive social impact, and has created the Give One for Good Food program, through which Michele’s Granola donates 1% of all granola and muesli sales to organizations focused on improving the food system in Baltimore.

Michele Tsucalas spoke with citybizlist publisher Edwin Warfield for this interview.

EDWIN WARFIELD: Walk us through the founding of Michele’s Granola and the “Small Batch, From Scratch” concept.

MICHELE TSUCALAS: Michele’s Granola started a little before 2006—probably the fall of 2005. I began making granola in my home kitchen. I lived in a tiny, maybe 400-square foot studio apartment in Arlington, Virginia, and had just come back from a summer on Martha’s Vineyard where I was working waiting tables, and every morning, when I would wake up, there was a local bakery there that made fresh-baked granola bars. I would eat those every day—I loved them so much—warm out of the oven. I came back to Maryland and couldn’t get my mind off the granola.

I started making granola in my home kitchen. A friend of mine said, “You know, Michele, this is really good. Maybe you should think about selling this.” I hadn’t really ever shopped at a farmers market before, but I called the local market and the manager said, “First of all, there’s a two year waiting list to get in as a vendor, and second of all you need to be a legitimate business. You need to have a licensed commercial kitchen.” I had imagined setting up a card table and my friend would bring his guitar out and we would just sit and sell granola on Saturday mornings. So I sort of put that on the back burner, continued to make granola, and that’s what I would give as gifts at the office and to friends and family around the holidays.

Then, an opportunity came up for me to start working at an area farmers market as a baker’s assistant. There’s a baking company that was looking for some support at the markets. I got a job with them on the weekends, and this was down in the Arlington area, and began selling with them breads and pies. I wasn’t in the kitchen, but I was just out at the markets and got to know the local food scene a little bit better, and this small batch family business that they had built. And really, at the farmers markets in the DC area, customers would ask for granola all the time and this company made breads, cookies, and pies but they didn’t make granola. So, I got my nerve up after couple of months working for them and building a relationship with them and I said, one day, “You know, I make granola, and my friends tell me it’s pretty good.” They said, “Well, why don’t you bring a couple of bags out to the market next week and we’ll see if there’s any interest.”

That’s really how it got started. That was the spring of 2006. I brought six bags of what is now our Original Granola out to the market, and they sold like that. What was really remarkable was the following week all of those customers came back again for more. I knew right away that I had something there. And so I just started expanding slowly from that market and ended up selling my products at about 20 markets in the DC area before I decided to take the business a little bigger and launch into wholesale grocery store accounts.

The small batch from scratch concept, I think, is what makes our products so delicious and so unique in the marketplace. I didn’t come from a culinary background, I didn’t go to culinary school, I didn’t work in professional food manufacturing, so I think that that was a happy accident due to the fact that I don’t know how to make granola any other way.

Q. How do you scale the “Small Batch, From Scratch” Concept?

A. Over the last ten years, the process really has scaled. We make the granola the same way that I always made it—we just have more people doing it. That was a happy accident, that we just became small batch and stayed small batch because I didn’t have any experience in a large commercial industrial type food manufacturing facility. I also had a passion for locally produced foods, and when I started at the farmers markets I met a lot of farmers, became friends with a lot of farmers, visited their operations, and learned from them that you can do things differently in a way that’s better for the environment, better for consumers, healthier—that you can make foods that tastes better and you can still make a living doing that. They were a real inspiration to me.

In the beginning I thought “I’ve tasted all the other cereals at the grocery store and they’re okay but they were nothing like those granola bars that I had on Martha’s Vineyard.” I began packaging small batch, from scratch granola and getting it onto store shelves. That’s what people wanted—that’s what I wanted, and I knew more people were out there who are looking for fresh-tasting products.

 

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