What led you to create Laura’s Gourmet Granola?
What became Vanilla Almond Crunch, which is our flagship and our first flavor, became nothing more than me making granola for myself. It stemmed from seeing a recipe in a magazine that looked like what I would eat in college while taking exams. I was pretty much fresh out of culinary school, I had been out for a year at that point, and I saw this recipe and made it. I thought, well this is good except it had butter in it and I don’t good with butter, and it had white sugar and I’m not a big fan of white sugar. So, for whatever reason, I kept playing with the recipe, documenting it as I went. I was trying different oils, sugars, and then one day I made a batch that was the recipe. Along the way, every time you make food or bake especially, you have more than you want so you start giving it away to people. So, people started asking me for it. When I hit the number with Vanilla Almond Crunch, it just kept growing a little more each time.
At this point, my best friend said I should think about selling it, I wasn’t busy with my first business as of yet, and so I started reaching out to AJ’s Fine Foods which is like your Treasure Island kind of a store. I ran into the owner of the entire chain one day outside the market, and he said he would put in a word for me, and that’s how we started with the shelf. It was ever only supposed to be something I enjoyed eating during exams in college and it was after that I realized, maybe I was meant to be Granola Girl.
So, we get on the shelf, and Steve Lafieber – who is still our category manager, said “You know Laura, in our industry one SKU is good but two SKU’s are better.” It was during that time, almost fall so I decided to make Pumpkin Pecan Crunch with spice blends and nuts, and not too much of a difference with the platform overall.
The packaging wasn’t the best, it was in a crafted-tied bag with handprinted labels from my inkjet at home, no barcode, no nutrition label, and AJ’s Finer Foods was okay with that because they are a family-owned chain. It was when we got into Whole Foods that we had to start providing a little more information. While all this was going on I was still focusing all my time on Chef Laura for Celebrating Cuisine Catering, and Laura’s Gourmet Cuisine was the little kid sister nuisance, it kept needing attention, and I was like “I’m a chef, I’m not a granola maker” I didn’t know marketing, I mean I did store sampling but nothing tremendous.
I have a friend who would pick all the almonds out of the bag, which made me crazy. He said, “Well, I don’t like almonds”. I said “Well, I see you eat peanuts?” He said “I know, I love peanuts.” So, I created Honey Roasted Peanut Granola so I didn’t have to watch him remove the almonds.
Meanwhile, I would buy granolas from Whole Foods, and as I’m eating it I thought “these apples are really good, I wonder where they came from?”. So, I contacted the company and asked where the apples come from, so they told me, and I reached out to that company, so then Applelicious. So, everything kept evolving in terms of the flavor development, to me, it was more important to have individual flavors that appealed to an individual’s palette as pose to putting everything into the bag. Like every nut, every seed, every fruit, which at the end of the day becomes trail mix.
It wasn’t until 2019 that I made a conscious choice between Celebrated Cuisine and Laura’s Gourmet Granola. There’s a metaphor that I go by and it is “You need to listen to the universe when it’s talking to you. It will tap you on the shoulder, and you ignore it.” I was getting these signs that I should focus on Laura’s Gourmet Granola and I was ignoring them all. I was still juggling small dinner events out of my house after closing my catering business but it took time away from granola. Then, the pandemic hit, and there were no more events to be had. So, it was like the universe was saying “Are you listening to me now?” It was good and bad because it was March of 2020 and over 60% of our business was food service and it’s gone – overnight. At the same time in 2019, we started expanding retail so we are in Texas, Chicago, upper Midwest States, so that helped us stay afloat. Honestly though, if it wasn’t for PPP’s it would be hard to stay afloat. That really, really made the difference.
Now that things have opened back up, it’s like we went through a discovery because our retail is up but our food service is up more than it was before. Since the pandemic experience, it seems like so many restaurants have popped up that are more geared to “Grab-n-GO”, and we are a good fit for that.
After Vanilla Almond Crunch, what was the next flavor you created?
Pumpkin Pecan was our next flavor but now we have placed that flavor into our seasonal. Then Honey Roasted Peanut followed. These are our only ‘nut-based’ and non-agave-based granola. So, if you’re a strict vegan, we have vegan flavors. Then from there, it was Applelicious – which my daughter helped me named, then LocoCocoNut, and we have a limited-edition flavor called Dark Chocolate Crunch which is also seasonal and will be back in October.
Who do you see as your ideal customer on retail?
That’s a great question! The ideal customer for Laura’s Gourmet Granola is someone who understands everything we eat is about balance. Meaning, that you need to take into consideration taste, texture, while you’re looking at the nutritional benefits of something. Because, if you are just trying to eat “healthy”, and only that, your food is probably not going to be all that awesome unless you just love fruit and vegetables.
Also, my ideal consumer would be one who doesn’t compromise. Because you can have all three at one time (taste, texture, and nutrition). I totally support our nutrition label. I know there is sugar in our product but you eat our product in moderation. And someone who will take our product, and use it throughout the day, creatively.
Bottom line, my ideal customer is someone who understands the balance and doesn’t compromise.
What is your favorite dishes to incorporate your granola?
One of my favorite dishes is roasted acorn squash and sweet potato soup which is vegan. I use vegetable stock, coconut milk to finish it and give it texture and creaminess. It has Thai chili in it. You want sweet, spicy, salty, and sour in your dish. So, when I finish the soup, I top it with Thai chilies and our pumpkin pecan crunch.
Another favorite dish is my foodie chopped salad which is my all-time favorite salad! It is a kale-blend, brussel sprouts, roasted sweet potato, roasted pepitas, with a cherry-balsamic reduction. When I’m making the cherry reduction, I’m using the same cherries we include in our Cherryific granola so it infuses, and top with the granola.
Something new I’ve been doing is I’m taking my granola, and grinding it down into a granola flour to bake or cook with. So far, I’ve made snickerdoodle with our SinnfulCinnamon granola, so they are Sinnfuldoodles. They come out so chewy! With our BlueberryBliss, I ground that up and combined it with cashew butter, baking powder, maple syrup, and pureed banana and baked it into a blueberry banana bread. I took our Honey Roasted Peanut and ground that up, combined it with a little cornstarch, and tossed cubes of tofu with it. At that point, you can either fry them on the stovetop or toss them in the air fryer and I add it to my Asian chopped food salad with a miso vinaigrette.
So, remember when I said the chef side was telling the granola girl “go away, I’m not that”, as I have grown into making this my full-time job I have been much better at recognizing that my chef stripes don’t get blurred in the process. I get to still create recipes and dishes using my granola.
Who or what inspires you?
First of all, here in Scottsdale Arizona we have some great chefs that run restaurants, and when they tell me what they create from my granola that inspires me. In honesty, “the what” that inspires me is that I love to play in the kitchen and see what is possible. The who would be our fan base along with the chefs that are a part of our fan base as well. Because they make you push yourself outside the box.
The inspiration also comes from when you change how you look at food. In January, I tested out a vegan diet for myself, and as a result in doing that, I had to get creative with what I was making for myself. I discovered ingredients I didn’t know existed just by being in that part of the grocery store. I like to tell people, it’s fun to step outside the box and get into our bag!
What advice would you give someone who is thinking about starting a new business?
Don’t! Just kidding!
When I started my first business ‘Celebrated Cuisine’, it wasn’t a leap of faith, I knew that’s what I should be doing. I had the financial means to support me through the “just getting started” part. Then with Laura’s Gourmet Granola, which was funded through my catering business, so it was all under one roof. I started with one chain, and I would buy the ingredients, and make it myself. At this point, I had no payroll, I wasn’t paying myself so it segwayed into it.
If someone is intended on starting their own business they need to make a choice. They need to decide if they want to be a locally focus business, and provide to the state they are in – because the benefits are huge when you’re local. Or, if they really want to be big, they need to figure out how to have funding, right out of the shoot to support the type of Go Big Go Fast that they need.
Bottom line – find a mentor, have a sounding board, don’t take no for an answer, and you have to believe in your product more than anyone else does.
What is next for Laura’s Gourmet Granola?
I’m thinking about bringing our Acai granola to market but I’m not sure if I should make that ‘web only’. I’ve also been working with another local-based company that makes nut butter, and so we are trying to bring to market a way we can combine the two products for the outdoors enthusiasts. Then I think, should we make clusters, or should we do a bar. If we decide to do a bar we would outsource it because the equipment cost is too high. I have still decided to stay in the granola frame, and then I think, I should take granola flour and bring that to market?
My last question is one I always ask the person I’m interviewing. Do you have a guilty pleasure; something that you prefer to eat when nobody is looking?
I absolutely love making my soft pretzels. When I make them, I have to hold myself back. There’s just something about a soft pretzel with the mustard – I mean, I went to school in Philadelphia, and that’s a thing there. If I’m going to have a guilty pleasure it’s the soft pretzel because it’s everything you’re not supposed to have in terms of carbs.