Keepin' It Real
by Laurie LaMountain
Live life organically, love the path you travel, keep it real. These three simple mantras are the abiding principles of the GrandyOats Real Granola experience. When owners Nat Peirce and Aaron Anker, who first became acquainted as students at UNH, bumped into each other at a Percy Hill concert in Portland, Maine, in 1999, the two decided to join forces. Nat had by then acquired GrandyOats and Aaron was working with Fresh Samantha juice company, which he refers to as his graduate school experience. Today, they engage a GrandyOats family of twenty employees, have increased their revenues fifty-fold and just recently achieved status as New England’s first 100% solar-powered, net-zero food production facility. You could say it’s been a long, strange trip that has lasted sixteen years so far. And, yes, there are VW buses involved in the journey.
It all started in 1996 with an organic café slash bakery on Main Hill in Bridgton. I remember it fondly because it was the first place in town where you could get an honest-to-goodness real cup of coffee. You could also get granola, which Nat baked in small batches. That small-scale, retail introduction to granola production eventually led to his purchase of GrandyOats from Sarah Carpenter and Penny Hood, who founded the company in 1979, and a move down Main Street to a larger space above the bookstore devoted solely to wholesale production. People still reminisce about savoring the aroma of baking granola while browsing the stacks at Bridgton Books.
A little more than two years later, following Nat and Aaron’s fortuitous meeting in Portland, GrandyOats moved operations to a 1910 dairy barn in Brownfield, Maine. Over the course of sixteen years, the business partners would grow GrandyOats from sales at seven Whole Foods locations to nearly three hundred, establish their brand as the first independent, organic cereal to be served at more than seventy-five colleges and universities, attain organic, non-GMO and Kosher certification and earn Food Producer of the Year and Maine Biz Next awards in 2013 and 2015 respectively.
Their move to Hiram, however, may be the most exciting leg of their journey to date. Nat and Aaron share similar philosophies on both business and life. Their core values lie in supporting people, profits and the planet while living a natural, healthy and intentional lifestyle. Even though their in-house “Super Cool” certification is the one they value most, they take their global role as business owners very seriously. Retrofitting an abandoned elementary school to a state-of-the-art, 100% solar-powered facility that will generate more than 95,000kWh of clean, renewable energy and zero percent carbon emissions on an annual basis is no small feat.
Not only was the school in serious disrepair, its proximity to the Saco River imposed waterfront zoning restrictions, giving ReVision Energy engineers the added challenge of factoring setback laws into the custom-designed solar electric system. The completed system, which consists of 288 photovoltaic modules arranged in two rows of 72 panels, will power one hundred percent of GrandyOats’ energy needs at three times its current capacity and offset over 145,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
“We are proud to be partnering with GrandyOats on this project because it shows the world that it is possible to run a high volume manufacturing facility in a relatively harsh northern climate without the need for oil, propane or natural gas,”says Portland-based ReVision Energy Cofounder Phil Coupe.
Despite Maine’s long, cold winters, it boasts three times the number of solar hours of Germany, a world leader in solar power, and comparative to the rest of the U.S., the only areas that have better solar output than Maine are Boulder, Colorado, and southern California. Aaron further explains that cold, sunny days actually generate more electricity because the air is more rarefied.
The Hiram expansion also affords more dedicated space for production and storage, including a 2,000-square-foot warehouse where raw organic ingredients will be housed, as well as a section of the plant dedicated solely to gluten-free production, allowing them to add gluten-free to their list of certifications. In short, it allows them to grow.
When Nat and Aaron attended their first natural products trade show back in 2001, they were something of a newgeneration presence, with companies like Stonyfield, Burt’s Bees and Tom’s of Maine representing the old guard. Now there’s an even newer generation of natural products producers. The Natural Products Expo West held this March in Anaheim, CA, attracted over 70,000 attendees, testament to how rapidly the natural products industry is growing and how serious a role it plays in the overall market. As the industry has grown, so has GrandyOats. Adding trail mixes, roasted nuts and organic Mainegrown oats has significantly increased their production, with a record 1.2 million pounds of product output in 2015.
Diversification has been key to GrandyOats’ growth and Maine-grown oats have been an exciting part of that process. Aaron started working with Aurora Mills & Farm in Linneus, Maine, about fourteen years ago and initially was only able to get about 100 pounds of oats at a time from them. GrandyOats is now buying about 4,000 pounds a month from Aurora Mills and their shared mission has been to provide more Maine farmers with incentive to grow organic oats.
“We’re pretty chill and definitely easy people to work with, but I think that we take things seriously, like putting in the net zero, 100% solar-powered facility. That’s not a small step. We feel that you can have an impact in business. I feel very strongly that the more and more I impact this business and Nat impacts this business we can change things. To be honest, I feel that more so than with politicians or other things like that, because businesses can make a difference. We hope this solar facility shows other people that it’s possible,” says Aaron. “As you get to be a bigger business and as you want to start advocating for a certain policy, like solar, you do become more involved.”
There’s a growing awareness that conducting business in a manner that contributes to the greater good is a means of affecting meaningful change in our culture, but how you behave at home is equally as important. By treating employees as family and providing living-wage jobs that are fun to show up to, GrandyOats may be making their greatest contribution to the greater good.
The family is only as strong as the parents, and another key component in GrandyOats success is Nat and Aaron’s partnership. Aaron is the sales guy and Nat is the bakery guy or, more accurately, Aaron handles sales and marketing and Nat operations and finance.
“People kind of laugh when I say this, but Nat and I have been married sixteen years. It’s a 50/50 partnership and it works.” Aaron jokes that having distinct roles in the business and giving each other space is what makes their marriage work.In reality, they are two guys with wives and children of their own, but when it comes to the true definition of family, it’s no joke.