Aspen granola brand takes off for local couple
February 23, 2010
ASPEN – Maddy D’Amato and Alex Hasulak are having trouble tracking time. Days flow into nights and back into day; weeks flash by in a blink. And was it really just nine months ago that their Aspen-born business, Love Grown Foods, first became available, selling its granola in just two small local shops? Was it this past summer that the couple could spend day after day talking up their product in Aspen’s City Market – the only supermarket to stock Love Grown Foods?
“Our weeks feel like an hour,” D’Amato, a 22-year-old Aspen native, said. “Because we do so much work and it goes by so fast. We’re demo-ing our product, giving out samples, and then suddenly it’s the next weekend and we’re doing it again.”
As of last month, the number of supermarkets selling Love Grown Foods’ granola ballooned to 80 City Markets and King Soopers across Colorado (including in Aspen and El Jebel) and into Wyoming. Compounding the disorientation was the fact that they had been told a few months earlier that it would be half that number of stores carrying their product. Hasulak, a driven 23-year-old Arizona native who, like D’Amato, sped through Denver University in three years, isn’t surprised by the growth. But it has knocked him a bit off-balance.
“You look back and say, ‘How did that happen? Did it really happen?'” Hasulak said. “Because we get so much in the grind and groove of what we’re doing. You don’t pay attention to what’s happening in the present day.”
There’s nothing like visual evidence, however, to prove just what you have accomplished. For D’Amato and Hasulak, that proof came last week, when they had a photo taken of themselves leaning on a full pallet of boxes of granola – more than a thousand bags of product.
“A lot of people can say they own a company with a food product and have it packaged. But it’s a completely different perception when you see us on an entire pallet full of our product,” said Hasulak, who calculated that they have delivered about 9,000 bags of granola to their distributor since the beginning of January.
D’Amato and Hasulak don’t need any reminders to tell them who actually made the granola: The two, who relocated to Denver over the past months, are the sole employees of Love Grown. Their typical schedule has them baking five nights a week, for four to five hours at a stretch, in a commercial kitchen near their Stapleton neighborhood. They have proven themselves more than competent as bakers: Jim Leff, founder of the chowhound website, recently held a blind taste-test that ranked Love Grown’s Sweet Cranberry Pecan as the No. 1 “killer” granola in the country, ahead of such brands as Udi’s and Back to Nature.
But the most significant part of the job – beyond the cooking, meetings, paper work, strategizing about getting into farmers markets and special events, and expanding into California and Arizona – is customer contact. The company is built not just on the granola, but on a way of thinking about food, nutrition and health; their slogan is “It’s not just a company, it’s a lifestyle,” and the Love Grown website features tips for leading a balanced life and getting sufficient exercise. D’Amato and Hasulak spend weekends in supermarkets, handing out samples, informing customers about their ingredients (no preservatives or hydrogenated oils, organic agave syrup instead of refined sugar) and letting people put a face to the product.
“We need to be spending time interacting with our customers,” D’Amato said, adding that between the two of them, they sell about 200 bags a day on supermarket days. “They can see how energetic we are, our enthusiasm, and how much we believe in the health benefits, and that this is the direction that food needs to go. The response we get is phenomenal, because they get to hear our story from us. And they can’t believe it when we show them the pictures on the bag, and it’s really us.”
That business model has earned the attention of their alma mater. A senior-level marketing class at Denver University is based on building a marketing plan for the business.
To keep their own lives in balance, while still getting in workdays of 15 hours or more, they combine business with socializing. They gather their college buddies for “sticker parties” that mix conversation with the chore of putting stickers on bags of granola. That has to suffice for a social life for the moment. Over the past two months they haven’t taken a day off, just managing to squeeze in two trips to the movie theater, for “Avatar” and “Valentine’s Day.”
“But if we hit a new milestone, we might go see ‘Avatar’ in IMAX,” D’Amato said.