Michele Liddle is determined to show the world that the benefits of granola can vary considerably – and not only when it comes to nutrition.
Liddle, an Orchard Park native who lives in suburban Rochester, a year ago launched her company, The Perfect Granola.
It has steadily made its mark upstate, in bag and bar form, in more than 250 retailers, including Wegmans, Dash's and the Lexington Food Co-op.
Her products also have made their way – in the form of large-quantity donations – to veteran's organizations, homeless shelters and food pantries in Buffalo and Rochester.
She recently donated 635 pounds of granola, and sold 840 more pounds at a discount, to the Food Bank of Western New York.
"We are here to make a difference and we want to help everybody that reaches out to us, if we can," said Liddle, who grew up in the shadow of what is now New Era Field.
The 34-year-old Hamburg High School graduate tended bar at Central Park Grill during the first half of her 20s. She got interested during those years in culinary matters, before moving to Victor when her husband, Jason, landed a job a decade ago as real estate liaison with the state Department of Transportation.
Michele Liddle was laid off several weeks ago from a job as business development manager for an electric motor shop. She considers the timing fateful for her granola company. Jason serves as company vice president.
Q. Olympic pole vaulter Jenn Suhr endorses your products. How did that come about?
My husband used to be a pole vaulter in high school and college. He was a big fan of Jenn's and she's a local in Rochester. One of my husband's co-workers works out at one of the gyms where she works out. From time to time, he'd tell my husband, "I saw Jenn Suhr at the gym yesterday." When I started the company, my husband wrote a note with a little snack pack of granola I made in our kitchen and had his co-worker drop it off at the gym. The note said, "My wife just started a company, we give our profits to homeless shelters. Our thoughts are to grow this company and get into retail and we'd like to see what you think, and if you'd want to endorse it or be a part of it somehow." She and her husband, Rick, tried the granola and Rick called me up about a week later. He said, "I don't know why we tried this. Typically we wouldn't." (It was sent in an unmarked brown cardboard box). We ended up meeting for coffee and I told him what our plans were and they were on board 100 percent from the beginning. Jenn is featured on all of our products and uses them too.
Q. Why did you decide to start a company with this kind of mission?
When I was pregnant with my daughter, who's now 2, I was volunteering at our local food pantry. I knew I wanted to do more. There's such a hunger issue in our community. We didn't have the money to do much, so the best I could do was offer my time. I thought, "If we really want to make a difference, we have to do something." I told my husband I was going to start a food company, and work on it after the kids went to bed. I did that every night. I did a lot of research on food safety and retail. We started making it in our kitchen and peddling it around to different retailers in the Rochester area. It got a little bit bigger and we were selling a little bit on our website.
Once you sell across state lines and on your website, you can't make it in your kitchen anymore, so I started taking vacation days and renting the kitchen at our Ontario ARC, a resident home for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I saw there was such an interest while I was there from the residents about what I was doing that a light bulb went off. I thought, "Let's start a company where we can create a food product, give food and money away, and see where that takes us." The next step is creating our own facility … It's in the very preliminary stages. The first thing that needs to happen is that we need to find a funding path and a site. We'll need a little bit of help, too. We are looking for investors. I also know there is grant money out there and there are avenues I'm exploring. We're hoping to have the groundwork laid by the end of this year and a facility by 2018. It's a pretty ambitious plan but so far it's working. … Wegmans has been a key component. They took us on when we were just an idea.
Q. How did you come up with the brand name?
My husband did. We were sitting on the couch one night after the girls went to bed and I told him, "If we're going to do this, we need to come up with a name." He said, "Why don't you call it Perfect? It is. It's nutritionally perfect. It tastes perfect. We give back the community. And we're endorsed by a Gold medal Olympian. It doesn't get much better than that."
Q. What makes your product more nutritional than others on the market?
That stemmed from our eating habits as a family. My husband is a marathon runner. I am extremely active and am a cycling instructor. With having two small kids, nutrition is a key part of our lives. I wanted to make sure it was something I would feed my kids. A lot of granola and granola bars are loaded with refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, and corn syrup and preservatives. I don't feed them to my kids. … Some big-named retailers were starting to jump on board because they knew our vision for the future. It wasn't just a granola that was out there. We used avocado oil, coconut oil, chia seeds, flax meal, all nutritional ingredients.
Q. Can you walk us through your product line? It looks like it ranges from $2.31 a bar to $9.99 a box.
That's on our website. We sell our products through Amazon. That's not what somebody's going to get if they go to a retailer. They're going to find our bagged granola for $6.99 and our five-bar boxes for $5.99. They are more competitive. We have the six products on our website. We have those in retailers but also have a 12-bar box that sells really well. We also do pretty well in some vending machines and stores where they have us near the cash register. There are three flavors: red, white and blue. Our red is Cherry Vanilla Walnut. Our white is the Original Mix: cranberry and almond. Our blue is Maple Pecan Date.
Q. Where do you get your ingredients?
Our co-packer sources them for us. They're all certified gluten-free, non-GMO and kosher. We don't have an organic seal at this point but when we build our own facility, we will. With our facility, we're going to be sourcing local ingredients as much as possible. Some of the stuff, we don't think we ever will. We have pecans in our maple pecan date blend and New York isn't a prime spot to grow pecans.
Q. Can you talk about how your business plan has benefited some local homeless shelters and pantries – and what the future is going to look like?
From day one, we started donating, though not on the large scale we're donating now. We've always supported organizations like our Veteran's Outreach Center and its Richards House, which houses homeless veterans. That was one of the first donations. We support Teen Challenge monthly. That's an addiction rehabilitation center. We've support ROCovery Fitness, New York State's first sober living community, in Rochester. We've given a substantial donation to Foodlink, another huge donation to House of Mercy, which just moved into a new facility and feeds and shelters hundreds of Rochester people. … We keep what we need to sustain the company. If we don't invest in inventory, we'll be out of business and that's no good to anybody. Anything extra, we give.
Q. Do you expect as the business continues to grow, especially here in Buffalo, that some Buffalo area facilities will benefit?
Without a doubt. We've already given to the Western New York food bank and the Western New York Co-Project, which is out of Buffalo. They contribute to people who are victims of violence, challenging economic issues or different life situations. A woman was going through a kidney transplant in the Buffalo area and people who were throwing the benefit reached out to us. We were able to make a donation for that, as well.
Q. What sort of growth have you experienced during the last 12 months?
It's been steady growth and it's really because of the community support we've had. Nothing survives without people helping you and pulling you up every step of the way. I can't say thank you enough to everybody who's helping us through this whole thing…
It's so exciting to get on the shelves of stores but the real challenge is staying there and making sure that awareness is out there. That's going to be our focus this year, maintaining our relationships and making sure people understand the mission behind the brand. We're making an impact on people's lives and changing things.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon