Like most artisanal food producers, Michelle Pusateri did not start making granola to build a business around it. The former Nopalito pastry chef didn’t like the stale, processed, and overly sweet blends in the store, so she made her own. Her friends and family loved it. Her boyfriend encouraged her to sell it. The result? Nine different Nana Joes flavors in stores all over the Bay Area.
It’s early on a Sunday morning when I meet Michelle at the Temescal farmers market in Oakland. There is still more than an hour to go before the first shoppers will arrive, but Michelle is almost done setting up. “I don’t like to rush,” she says. Her smile resembles that of the two beaming faces on the Nana Joes banner behind her. Are they Nana and Joe?
“I have to admit, the picture is kind of confusing,” she says. “I think I would have thought it out more if I knew I would be explaining it to 50 people at every farmer’s market.” The photo on the banner is a favorite shot of her parents, taken on their third date. The brand, however, is named after family: her grandmother and grandfathers, both named Joseph.
You wanted to create a granola that was different. What sets Nana Joes apart?
I started making granola because I was doing a lot of surfing with my boyfriend early in the morning. I was having a hard time keeping my energy up so I decided to make a breakfast cereal that wasn’t packed with a bunch of sugars. Instead, I use maple syrup because it’s low glycemic. My whole thing is for people to have a nutritious breakfast that can carry them into lunch time.
Another thing that is cool about Nana Joes is that we make granola every week. I wanted to make a packaged granola you get at the grocery story, but that tastes freshly baked. We use almonds from Kashiwase Farms and all of our dried fruit comes from Blossom Bluff Orchards. Right now I am getting maple syrup from Crown Maple in the Hudson Valley in New York. I think they are an amazing company. They are a little bit smaller, but they have a good belief system and they do not hurt the trees.
Your granola is also gluten-free. Was that always the case or did you pick up on the trend?
It wasn’t always gluten-free, no. But by doing farmers markets I learned what people are looking for. Around the same time I stopped eating gluten myself because I was having skin problems. So when I built my new kitchen, I decided to go completely gluten-free. I got new ovens, new sheet pans, new everything.
A bag of Nana Joes sells for $10. Do you find it hard to compete with cheaper brands?
Some people say,“Wow, 10 dollars?” — but I give them a full pound bag. Some of the boxed cereals are 53 cents per ounce and mine is 62. We make everything by hand; we still juice and zest our own oranges, scrape vanilla beans and make our own butters for the cluster blends and the granola bars.
The artisanal granola market has exploded in the last couple of years. How much of a challenge is that?
It doesn’t scare me. It just gives people more of a choice. When a new granola hits the market, I see my sales drop a little bit but then I see them go back up. People like to try new things, but I think they like this granola because it is not overly sweet.
Your products are sold in stores all over the Bay Area, even Whole Foods. Why do you continue doing farmers markets?
I love working farmers markets. Direct sales are pretty cool. There has been a significant change since I started almost three years ago, though. There’s an oversaturation of markets and everybody has seen their sales slowly drop. And then there’s the shift to online sales. We sell through Good Eggs now and do really well with them. Amazon Fresh plans to roll out in more cities. There’s farm box and all kinds of new ways for people to get fresh food delivered. People don’t have to come to the market anymore.
But the farmers markets have definitely helped me get my name out. Being at the Ferry Plaza market has at least doubled my online sales because people from Utah or Wyoming or Arizona discovered me and they can’t get this kind of granola yet where they live.
The direct contact with customers also allows me to find out why certain products are not selling. It’s the reason why we ended up with nine different products; I wanted to offer something to everyone. Though that’s not necessarily the best business model. Stores, for example, don’t have that much real estate to sell all those flavors.
Have the farmers influenced you as well?
Absolutely. I am evolving my business model to source more locally. I didn’t start out that way. My most popular blend has pecans, mulberries from Turkey, and coconut. My more recent blends are definitely moving towards more local ingredients.
Talking to the farmers, I also learned a lot about the nut trade. I noticed that some of the nuts I bought were labeled “grown in California, processed in China.” I discovered that nuts from here ship to China, get shelled there and are then sold back to us. Isn’t that, well, nuts? You can only imagine how long those nuts sit in less than ideal conditions on freight ships and in customs. I was talking to one farmer who I was getting my nuts from and she told me she was going to be out soon. For a long time she wasn’t getting enough sales from people at the farmers markets and so in order to survive, they started selling to China. The Chinese are now ordering more and more and now there aren’t enough nuts to meet the demand of people here who want to buy directly from the farm. Shame on us. Not shame on them. The farmers did what they had to to survive. Over time that trend might be reversed but it is going to take at least 10 years I think.
For more about Nana Joes, farmers market locations, nutrition information, and to order, visit them at nanajoes.com.
Editorial: Evy Ballegeer