Long after the oat, fruit and nut-based cereal blend called granola arrived on store shelves, it became a slang term for tree huggers and neo-hippies dedictated to healthy and environmentally aware lifestyles.
The slang website Urban Dictionary lists granola head, crunchy granola and granola cruncher among the variations of the term when it’s used to describe a person.
While granolas (the human kind) may not always get much respect these days, it’s been an entirely different story for granola, the cereal.
Granola products labeled as artisan or gourmet are showing up in growing numbers at Corridor farmers markets and on supermarket shelves. Such granola products often cost double the price of mass-market granola but contain more nutritious ingredients.
Typical of the new generation of granola makers — is Lindsay Helsper, a young Marion mom who introduced Heart of My Home Granola in December 2011 after honing her recipes on her family. She also sells them online.
Helsper offers the granola in five flavors, including German chocolate decadence granola and old-fashioned honey granola with flax, at $5.95 per 12-ounce bag. She also offers 1.5-ounce snack packs at $1 each.
Helsper has found that “there are definitely granola people and non-granola people,” but the granola people don’t mind paying for quality. As with many of the new-generation artisan granola, Helsper’s homemade products stick with healthy ingredients, such as unprocessed wheat bran, rolled oats and flaxseed.
Helsper isn’t getting rich even though the granola isn’t inexpensive.
“This is our family hobby,” she said. “You can come to the farmer’s market, meet my husband, and meet my two children. It gets me out of the house so I can talk to adults.”
If Helsper went looking for granola business success inspiration, she need look no further than Rick and Belinda O’Brien.
Since the couple started mixing, baking and packing granola in Center Point two years ago, O’Briens Own Gourmet Granola has expanded distribution to 90 grocery stores in six states, in addition to several farmers markets.
The O’Briens offer gluten-free granola along with 11 blends of regular granola, which include cinnamon cranberry, oatmeal chocolate chip and pumpkin spice on their website. They’ve even added three different versions of protein granola containing whey, which are popular with body builders and people who work out frequently.
“It’s just grown for us,” Belinda said, admitting that she never expected the business to take off like it has.
But the godparents of local craft granola makers may be Barb and Steve Pethoud of Park View-based Barb’s Garden & Pantry. They’ve been selling granola for almost 20 years, and now have their product in 80 Hy-Vee stores and several farmers markets.
“It’s a pretty healthy food — high in carbs, low in fat,” Steve said.
While store-brand granola tends to be clumpy “like an oatmeal cookie,” Pethoud said Barb’s Garden & Pantry Granola is a much looser mixture of oat flakes, almonds and flaxseed. It sells for $6.50 a bag, and is used for baking into muffins or sprinkling on foods such as yogurt, ice cream or cereal.
In fact, it may be the crunchy texture and more intense flavors of the new artisan granola even more than their nutritional profile that have attracted consumers. At $7 to $10 per pound, artisan granola can make for an expensive breakfast cereal.
Producers of the designer granola say they also are popular with endurance athletes, who like to take along a zip-lock bag full on a morning bike ride or trail run.
Not every grocer has jumped about the gourmet granola bandwagon in a big way.
Ben Magel, grocery coordinator for the New Pioneer Food Co-op in Iowa City and Coralville, said more independent granola makers have offered products to New Pioneer in the past year. Magel said he doesn’t stock much of the new artisan granola because he hasn’t seen much demand from co-op members.
Magel believes more companies are making granola because it’s a simple way to deliver such currently popular “superfoods” as chia and quinoa and “superfruit” such as blueberries and cranberries that consumers are embracing in their diets.
The price tags on some of the new granola food seem to reflect a pricing strategy that Magel believes has become a little too common in the health markets — pricing products at a very high premium to instill the belief among consumers that they are simply the best.
New Pioneer stocks its own granola made in the co-op’s deli and a small amount of branded product, including the pricy Nature’s Path Quia granola that is packed with buckwheat, hemp and chia. It sells for more than $8 per 7.9-ounce pouch.
Just where the granola market is headed isn’t entirely clear. The sky appears to be the limit for new granola recipes.
“It’s interesting how everyone has a different idea of what granola should be,” Helsper said.
Pethoud has seen granola makers come and go over the years at farmers’ markets where Barb’s sells its products. He is doubtful that some of them are making much money, but he welcomes the competition. Barb’s offers a wide selection of jams, pies and other products so it isn’t overly reliant on granola.
For Helsper, gourmet granola has become a fun hobby that pays.
“I know it’s not going away,” Helsper said, “since there’s a big trend in our society to go more natural.”