Small batch granola that leaves a positive impact on the environment and community
Michele 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: When did you decide to pursue this business full-time?
MICHELE TSUCALAS: I was working for a nonprofit group at the time when I first started baking Michele’s Granola. I was working in fundraising. I had been with that organization for a few years by the time I left. Michele’s Granola continued to be a hobby business in its early years, and there was a point when I said, “This is getting to be too much.” I was going to the kitchen overnights and on weekends to bake enough granola for the markets and really didn’t have time for anything else. When I felt like the sales were strong enough and there was a growing interest from grocery stores not just from the farmers markets, I decided to leave my job and pursue Michele’s Granola full time.
Can you tell us about the Michele’s Granola’s values and where they came from?
The values that we’ve created as an organization have really come up through the last 10 years of the company’s development. I started out knowing that I wanted to provide something of value to people, a better tasting granola that was made in a really authentic way, made with ingredients that people could trust—things that you would find in your home kitchen, no strange additives or preservatives. I knew that I wanted to make a product that was fresh and tasted fresh and had a shorter shelf life than most consumers were typically used to—because it was fresh and had those qualities, no additives and preservatives in it. I knew that I wanted to give back in a way.
Initially I was focused on how the production operation was using resources. I was focused on limiting waste, recycling the Kraft paper packaging that our oats would come in. Early on, I met a local company called Waste Neutral that composts in the area, and the composting facility was very close to the first Michele’s Granola kitchen in South Baltimore. I would just load up all the food waste, all the scraps of products that fell on the floor during production, and dropped them off at the gate of the Waste Neutral composting facility, which they let me do for free because it was such a small amount to begin with.
Our first delivery vehicle ran on recycled vegetable oil. That was such a neat experience. One of the first trade shows I ever did was the Green Festival, which featured all kinds of green living products, natural and organic products—not just foods but consumer products goods, household goods, fashion apparel. I met a company there, they had a big yellow Hummer on display, and Hummers were of the things previously I would look at and say, “That’s not an environmentally friendly option,” but this company had converted their Hummer to run on recycled vegetable oil. I was thinking about how do we deliver our products without spending a ton of money. At that time gas prices were higher than they are now and I saw this and thought, “That’s so cool.” I loved the idea of bringing something else on board that really fit with the company’s mission, and I thought granola people are going to expect that from their granola brand: that we’re environmentally minded. So, over the last ten years, there have been small things that we have added into the way that we produced our products, the way that we run our facility. Our current facility is run on wind power.
Also, giving back to the community has always been important to me. Growing up, my parents taught me. They had their own business. My father is a dentist, and through their business they were always focused on the well-being of their community and the people around them. So, that’s just been something I’ve always thought about. I worked in the nonprofit sector for a while as a fundraiser and volunteered, and raising money from businesses got me thinking about the power of business to do good in the community. So, it was always in the back of my mind—it was more part of my five-year plan: that when the business became profitable enough, I wanted to make sure that we were giving back to the community that has supported the business all the way along.
Tell us about your involvement with Give One to Good Food: What is it and why are you involved?
The link between business and giving back to our community is a very strong link. I acknowledged that this business wouldn’t exist without the support of the community, and so I think in the day-to-day it’s just that universal connection between what you put out there and what you get back. Our mission to give back to the community is an unselfish one but we obviously also know that the more we give, the more that we will get, and the business will keep growing. It’s just the way the universe works; it’s good karma.
We didn’t give back 1% of our sales until about five years in, because the business wasn’t profitable enough. I was still focused on earning enough money to pay my own rent, but once we hit about $1 million in annual revenue, something shifted in the profitability of the company, we really hit our stride—our sweet spot, like we like to call it—and the profits became more than I felt were mine. So, we developed the Give One for Good Food program, and just knew it was time to really turn our attention and our gratitude and put that back into Baltimore. Baltimore needs it. Baltimore needs good business models, and yeah, our customers know we’re doing good things. Our customers are part of those organizations. They’re out pulling produce at Whitelock Community Farm, and I do think food tastes better when you know that the company who’s making it is doing good things to its core.
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