How Michele Tsucalas Built a Granola Empire in Baltimore
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How Michele Tsucalas Built a Granola Empire in Baltimore

Jan 07, 2024

Lettering by Luke Lucas Hair & Makeup by Dean Krapf

ON AN EARLY FALL MORNING, inside arun-of-the-mill Timonium office park, akitchen staff dressed in white aprons, whitechef shirts, and bouffant caps measuresand mixes, spreads and smooths, bakesand breaks, and finally bags and boxessheets of granola. Against the backdrop ofshiny steel ovens, industrial-sized mixers,and walls papered with hygiene signs, thecrew works with yeoman-like efficiency fora brand that has quietly become a made-in-Maryland cereal superstar.

Twenty-four hours later, Michele's Granola—seven flavors in all, fromalmond butter to lemon-pistachio, plus seasonal and limited-edition varieties—will get shipped to some 3,500 grocery stores across the United States,including Whole Foods Markets, Giants, Krogers, The Fresh Markets, Sprouts,Wegmans, Graul's Market, Eddie's of Roland Park, as well as mom-and-popmarkets (not to mention online on Amazon). The food product—once an "ittybitty granola baby" in the words of its founder—has a footprint in virtuallyevery state from Maine to Hawaii, and it is now one of the top-selling premiumgranolas in the country.

"It's amazing that we sell so well in California," says Sam Hopkins, thecompany's senior materials manager, as she stands in the neatly organizedwarehouse, piled floor-to-ceiling with boxes marked "Denver," "York," "SouthCarolina," "Atlanta," and "Mendocino." "California is the birthplace of granola—you’d think they have their own small-batch scene, but they love ours."

Behind this powerhouse product is the brand's namesake, Michele Tsucalas,whose likeness appears on the label—an illustration inspired by the work of ArtNouveau artist Alphonse Mucha featuring a Mother Nature-like goddess withgolden locks and a basket of grain cradled in her arms. Ironically, when peoplefind out that she makes granola, they assume it's just a hobby. Says Tsucalas,"When people hear that I make granola, or they taste the granola for the firsttime, they say, ‘This is so nice—do you have a kitchen in your garage?’"

Clearly not. Making the granola from start to finish at her sprawling25,000-square-foot production facility takes somewhere between two-and-a-half to three hours per batch. By the endof each weekday, 8,000 pounds of granolawill be made over the course of two nearlyround-the-clock shifts.

It's no small feat, creating a star fooditem in a sea of similar products, but Tsucalashas defied the odds. Beyond its terrifictaste, what sets the granola apart is itsunique texture. Though the foundationalrecipe—a combination of oats, nuts, seeds,coconut, brown sugar, and oil—seems classic,it's inexplicably crisp, featherlight yetdense, yielding a healthful, hearty, addictivemix. You’ll find it on grocery storesshelves in the cereal aisle, but it's alsothe perfect anytime snack—a go-to energybooster for wilderness walks, a topping foryogurt, and even ice cream.

And while the process of making it is aproprietary secret, the key, says Tsucalas,is doing things by hand, from smoothingthe granola onto trays before it gets bakedto breaking it into smaller pieces after itcomes out of the oven—at which point theproduct is checked not just for that righthoney-hued color, but crunch, based on thesound of the snap (similar to the sound ofshattering glass) to make sure the moisturehas been baked out. Bagging, too, is doneby hand so that the pieces hang together infat, crunchy clusters.

Founded 17 years ago, the bootstrapstart-up is now a major player on the cerealscene. The company is projecting $15 millionin revenue for 2023, a number that'seven more impressive given that annualrevenue for female-owned businesses averaged$475,707 in 2021, according to Forbes.Not bad for a brand that started as a farmers’market stand, then hit it big when six12-ounce bags first sold at a Whole FoodsMarket in north Baltimore.

SITTING ON A MOSS-GREEN velvet chair in her beautifully appointedLutherville home, amidst an array of handmade pottery, wicker baskets,textured pillows, and plants, the 44-year-old Tsucalas—with her longbrown mane, dangly earrings, peasant dress, and bare feet—is exactlythe kind of person one might envision behind such delicious granola. Sheexudes an inner peace. And when she smiles, which she does frequently,her face brightens.

"We make granola and sell granola," says Tsucalas, who shares herhome with her husband, Justin, a photographer (and contributor to Baltimorewho shot the images for this story), their two children, Oliver, 9, andHazel, 8, and their sheepadoodle, Miles, who bounds around the housewith toddler energy. "It's very simple, but it's important to have a story."

Tsucalas’ story starts in Montgomery County, where she grew up, justdown the road from her father's dental practice. Her mother worked thereas well. "At a young age, I had this sense of the freedom and flexibilitythat working for yourself provides," she recalls.

Baking was an early interest. "My mom wasn't a big cook," she says."I grew up in the ’80s and it was all about convenience. I remember when we bought our first microwave. The meal preparing was meant to bequick and there were other things you would pursue because of thetime it saved."

But, unlike her mother, Tsucalas enjoyed spending time in thekitchen. "One year, my mom made a cake, put the first candle in it,and it exploded like the turkey in National Lampoon," she says, laughingat the memory. "From that point on, I stepped up to make thebirthday cakes. I experimented with different flavors—I’m sure a lotof it came from a box—but it was the contentment that I got from theprocess and the joy that it brought people. That just stuck with me."

After graduating from Duke University in 2000 with an economicsdegree, as her peers moved into jobs in investment banking, Tsucalascontemplated her future. "I remember the day Morgan Stanleycame to recruit on campus—I just didn't feel it," she says. "It wasn'tthat I couldn't do that, it just wasn't something I was interested in."

In her early 20s, Tsucalas briefly worked for a tech company inNorthern Virginia before moving to Ireland, where she worked fora year in an Asian noodle restaurant, followed by another year as aserver at a pizza joint in Australia. After her Irish friends landed servicejobs back in the U.S. on Martha's Vineyard, she followed them,serendipitously landing a job waiting tables at the famed Black DogBakery Café. When she tasted their granola bars, still warm from theoven, it was transformative.

"They stood out to me as something that were better than anythingI’d ever had before in the breakfast cereal category," she says."You could see every ingredient—oats, seeds, and nuts—and I lovedthe way the clean, whole grain, and slightly sweet flavors melted inmy mouth. The whole scratch-made bakery concept was also new andinspiring to me. From there, I tried every yogurt-and-granola bowl Icame across, and soon started working on my own homemade cereal."

Back in the Mid-Atlantic again by 2003, Tsucalas worked as afundraiser for a nonprofit. In her off-hours, she dreamed of BlackDog's granola and decided to make her own, often sharing her goodswith family and friends. "I loved people's reactions," she says. "I remembergiving granola to a friend as she was leaving my apartment.She called me when she got home and said, ‘It's all gone.’" Anotherfriend convinced Tsucalas that she should try to sell it. She contemplatedpeddling it at local farmers’ markets but was discouragedafter learning it would require a business permit and working in acommercial kitchen when she already had a full-time job.

But in 2005, she took a part-time position selling baked goods forTakoma Kitchens, a cafe that had a stall at the prestigious Takoma ParkFarmers’ Market in Montgomery County. "They had long been part of themarket scene and were real advocates for local farming, real food, and farmto-table living," says Tsucalas. "That inspired me."

Her timing was perfect. It was right as the locavore movement wasseeing a resurgence and granola was once again becoming a stylish foodtrend, in large part thanks to the Bare Naked Granola brand, which modernizedthe product by putting it in a standup pouch, repositioning it as aconvenient energy food in a resealable package. "They really made granolahip again," she says. "It wasn't just something your grandma made or ahippie thing."

Although Takoma Kitchen did not sell granola, customers were repeatedlyrequesting it. One day, Tsucalas asked the owner if she might sellher own. After getting the green light, the following week she brought sixtin-tied, craft-paper bags to the market—three "Original" and three with raisins,sold as "Michele's Granola." "I always thought I’d think of somethingelse to call it," she says, "but I never did."

The granola, whose recipe hasn't changed since the company's founding,was an instant hit, selling out every week. Out of her tiny apartmentin Northern Virginia, it took her six hours to make six pounds, but shebelieved that maybe she had stumbled ontosomething. "Early on, the feedback fromcustomers really gave me confidence—ifthree people were coming back each weeksaying it's the best they’ve ever had, orthey’re completely devouring it, whycouldn't that be a thousand people?" sheremembers thinking at that time.

Working at the market also gave her asense of personal fulfillment. "I was drawnto the opportunity to create something ofmy own that had value," says Tsucalas."It was about making things better." In notime at all, she amped up her production, working nights at her boss's commercial kitchen. "I knew I was ready toleave my job," she says, and by 2006, she decided to pursue her granolabusiness full-time.

In 2008, she moved the business to Baltimore, where rent was cheaper,and workspace was easier to come by. Her first commercial kitchenwas in Curtis Bay, a 1,000-square-foot space on the site of a former pizzeria.She had four employees at the time, including Tony Sowa, who isnow the company's national sales and distribution manager. To get upand running, she purchased a double convection oven on eBay for $3,000with money she had saved from the farmers’ market. "On the day it wasdelivered, the guy took it off the back of the truck and left it on the sidewalk,"she says. "It didn't fit through the front door." Feeling defeated,she called Sowa, who then owned a landscaping company. "I was like, ‘It'sover.’ I just spent everything I had." Sowa brought some of his crew, tookthe oven apart, loaded it through the doors, and then rebuilt it. Then, saysTsucalas, "we were rocking and rolling."

AT THE FARMERS’ MARKETS, she had noticedthat many farmers sold directly to customersto avoid the lower profit margins inwholesale. But thanks to her business-schoolsmarts, Tsucalas saw an opportunity to sellhigher volumes—even if the profit margin waslower per unit—by selling at grocery stores,which at the time were just beginning to stocktheir shelves with local goods. "I followed theflow of what was happening with local food,"she says. "I started selling at the local co-ops—Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op, Glut FoodCo-op in Mt. Rainer, those were our first customers."From there, she started selling to independentlyowned organic markets throughoutthe region, including Roots, Yes! Organic Market,and MOM's Organic Market, where the storemanager set aside ingredients for her to buy inbulk and to help cut costs.

Her big break came in 2009 when the WholeFoods in Baltimore's Mt. Washington neighborhoodstarted carrying the pantry staple. "Tonyand I had sold Michele's Granola to practicallyevery locally owned natural and specialty foods store in the region," says Tsucalas, "andWhole Foods was the natural next step." Asluck would have it, the grocery manager ather first Whole Foods had formerly workedat the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op,which, up until then, had been Tsucalas’only customer, and was already a fan.

IN THE BEGINNING, Michele's Granolaoccupied a tiny row on a single end cap atWhole Foods. But the "Original" flavor bags(which are still the top-selling flavor) flewoff the shelves, and soon they were beingcarried at the store's bigger Harbor East location."I was helping make it, doing deliveries,and doing all the orders," says Sowa. "Wehad a Ford Excursion that was running onvegetable oil. I was literally driving arounddelivering the granola and calling peopleto sell it." Back then, there were 60 WholeFoods in the Mid-Atlantic. Michele's Granolawas in 15 of them within that first year.

Five years after its founding, the businesshit a million dollars in annual revenue,and Michele's Granola was well on its way tobecoming a small-batch behemoth. In 2010,the company moved from Curtis Bay to theformer Glarus Chocolatier space on AylesburyRoad in Timonium. (Along the way,she met her husband, Justin, at Holy Frijolesin Hampden—and they married in 2013.) By2015, the company outgrew that space andmoved just down the road to the current officepark on Greenspring Drive, where it hasundergone several expansions, including abrand-new area for packaging and labeling.

Lisa de Lima, vice president of groceriesat MOM's Organic Market, was an earlyadopter of the brand when she brought itto the store in 2008. "It tasted great andthe fact that she was a local vendor was icingon the cake," says de Lima. "It has beenone of the most successful local productswe’ve ever carried. Customers say they wantlocal, but don't always buy it—Michele's hasled the way."

And that growth has only continued. In early 2020, when the COVID-19pandemic hit, online sales quadrupled, in part because people were stayinghome and "moving their dollars from restaurant spending to groceryspending," she says.

Tsucalas never imagined the company would experience such exponentialgrowth. "For years people asked me what my plans were, I’d say,‘to make granola,’" she says, though her vision has expanded, includinghiring a CEO and doubling her staff to a team of 83 that will increase to 100by the end of 2023.

To diversify the brand, the entrepreneur has augmented her product lineto include a series of spreadable nut butters mixed with granola. There arealso two types of muesli (a toasted cereal with no oil or refined sugar) onoffer, including an apple-cinnamon flavor. But the real growth, says Sowa,came from taking the brand from natural and organic food stores to conventionalmarkets. "The current movement in grocery stores at large is to bringin the natural shopper," he says. "It has been really awesome to see that."

Beyond the product itself, Tsucalas takes great pride in not only beingwomen-owned, but vegan, verified non-GMO, and sourcing organic ingredientswherever possible. She is proud of the company's green initiatives,too, including running electricity entirely on wind power and recycling orcomposting 80 percent of production materials (even the packaging peanutsare made of cornstarch, which means they dissolve in water) and 100percent of food waste.

The company also donates one percent of its sales to Give One For GoodFood, a charitable network that supports local food entrepreneurs andurban farmers (and organizations such as the Baltimore Hunger Project)who are providing nutritionally balanced food to communities in need. Aspart of the mission, giving employees a voice is also important, includingencouraging staff members to invent their own flavors. (Baker JenniferBarrett came up with the limited-edition Toasty S’mores and even got herphoto on the bag.)

Customers have taken note. "Michele's Granola has been a staple inmy home for many years—it's always a part of my daily routine," saysBaltimore resident Hope Ayers, who favors the toasted muesli and supportsthe company's commitment to social change and environmentalfriendliness. "Supporting women-owned and local businesses is also veryimportant to me," says Ayers. "By supporting them, I support all women—and our entire community."

Maryland resident Jay Schlossberg receives a bi-monthly subscription ofsalted-maple-pecan and purchases the lemon-pistachio granola at the grocerystore. "They hit all the marks," says Schlossberg, who appreciates thecompany's organic and recycling efforts. "Also, it's some of the best granolaI’ve ever eaten."

Fortunately, fans will be able to get their fix for years to come."Many food companies sell an idea with the intention of getting in andout, but we’re like, ‘We might be able to do this for the rest of our lives,’"says Sowa. "I’m down with wearing tie-dye and flip-flops and making granolafor the rest of my life." Tsucalas puts it like this: "My original purposewas to make granola. I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be beautiful to make a livingdoing that?’"