A rather lengthy self-interview on the making of first new product in a few years.It's been a long time since you've introduced a product. How did this go for you all?
Oh, boy—really very different. When Geoff and I founded our granola company we were primarily structured as a subscription club. The challenge we set ourselves was to create a new granola every month and then use the production time for training. We were both volunteers so we definitely didn't mess around with customer research. I would do 2-3 trial runs of a small-batch recipe in my home kitchen. My kids, their friends, and whoever happened to stop by became our sample pool. A couple days before production I would send Geoff the name and ingredients and he'd create a label. Usually he gave himself an hour or so to do it and every time he'd impress both of us with something beautiful. A few rules and a deadline—it was all very improv. I'd format labels in MSWord and print them on my laser printer. Then we did the full recipe near the end of each month with Evon and suggesting last minute adjustments. We'd make enough for orders and some extra to sell at farmers markets.
That is different.
I don't recall a lot of reflection back then. Like I said, Geoff and I had other jobs. We told ourselves we were doing this for fun. It was a tiring sort of fun, but gratifying. I oversaw the production and the training. Then I had to go home and get subscription orders into the mail. Looking back, it all seems preposterous that we pulled off about 24 recipes within 2 years. I don't have either the stamina or the chutzpah to do that again. I'd probably throw my back out if I just tried to stir our granola myself these days.
And this product? What was the process like?
Well, we had meetings, discussions. We made samples and had 2-3 different focus groups. We sent the samples by mail and used a survey and then a zoom gathering with a facilitator. We tried to get wide input from boomers and millennials, health nuts, foodies. The best part involved listening to people really seriously. I think we all enjoyed the process of co-creating with our fans. I still did some tests in my home kitchen trying to solve specific problems. Eventually we created a flight of 3 samples so focus groups could compare and contrast. Now, after about 6 months, we're finally going live.
One thing that didn't change is that I ate a LOT of muesli. I think most of our staff did. My background in writing has taught me that you can read something very differently in different circumstances, so I tried to experience the new muesli in a wide variety of circumstances: with yogurt, on ice-cream, in dry handfuls while hiking, poured from the bag right into my mouth while driving, in the shower (just kidding). Of course we had a lot of other things going on this year, including launching a new website, so this went in fits and starts.
Speaking of a lot going on, what made you want to introduce a product now?
We've wanted to do a low oil/low sugar product for a long time. Our fans, including some on our staff team who are avoiding sugar, have been asking for it. And as much as I like granola, I eat it as more of a treat. I usually gravitate towards an obscenely large bowl of raw oats in the morning as if I'm a horse and strapping on a feed bag. Sometimes I won't need to eat for the rest of the day. When you're busy, that's pretty cool. But raw oats can have a cardboardy aftertaste. And life is awfully short to not take a moment of pure pleasure in what you eat for breakfast. Cardboard is not pure pleasure. So our fans asked. We wanted it. Maybe I needed it. Plus we're thrilled to have something wonderful for the holidays and the new year.
But, I mean, during a pandemic? You had an organization to keep together. That doesn't seem ideal.
Actually a pandemic seemed like a great time for this particular product—it's by far the most nutritious things we've made. It scores off-the-charts on satisfying, which is the best way to avoid junk calories. As we created the recipe we were inspired by essential workers, essential calories, essential nutrients—we almost named this "Essential Muesli." But we wanted to go beyond that with an emphasis on rising above: super powers, super food, super simple, something super delicious during a super hard year.
Okay. So tell us about decisions along the way.
Our goal was to keep all the flavor of our granola but not the oil and sugar. We wanted a true everyday product—that's in keeping with our mission to help people make human displacement part of their everyday life. (We also considered naming the Everyday Muesli.) We wanted a true vegan product without honey. We experimented with being more idealistic (unsweetened cranberries, gluten-free oats) but our initial focus groups helped us see that our customers tend to be more pragmatic than purists. They appreciated balancing health and dietary restrictions with costs and especially taste. We put a lot of effort into flavor and texture—gently breaking some of the almonds so they still crunch but won't break anybody's teeth. We left walnuts nearly whole so you get that satisfying bite. We chose organic rather than gluten-free oats because they have more flavor. This muesli stars the oats. It's a wheat free and low-gluten but not gluten-free recipe. It's not raw because we toast the ingredients. It's over 30% nuts and seeds, so that makes it high protein. In fact, it's even higher fiber than the nutrition facts show because the new FDA formulas don't count all the oat fiber. We took out the flax to improve the shelf life. We added a hint of molasses partly because it's a superfood, partly to tip our hat towards our originola flavor, and partly to counter any chalky mouthfeel from the fiber. The only other added sugar is from the cranberries.
But ultimately we put most of our effort into doing what we always do—taking care with each ingredient to maximize it's flavor. Our hope is that you can taste every ingredient. We experimented with making a tiny amount of salt go a long way. We added the extracts and spices to the fruit, which makes them burst with flavor, especially when you cook them like an oatmeal. We were thinking about this as a new line of products. If our customers like it, then we have a home base to make other super muesli's. We tried to figure this into our labeling so that both the flavor and the style are clear on the shelf. And maybe we can do some super-super version with other superfoods like chia, flax etc.
Is it done then? Are you still working through any questions?
We need to run a detailed cost analysis, but we know the ingredients in this recipe aren't cheap. Still it's also a less time-consuming product to pack, so for now we're charging the same as our regular granola. We'll also be printing our labels at Staples and cutting them by hand. That buys us some time to make ongoing adjustments before we get to the printer. If anyone out there reading this has opinions or requests, please consider yourself part of our final focus group and drop us an email or message. We're all ears to make this our best product ever and we're interested in your thoughts on label or even name. We want this to feel like a new line of products that could expand. (Personally, I'd wanted to call this Super O.M. (Original Muesli) for an American-retro, hippy vibe with a modern twist. That didn't quite seem intuitive enough. But it amused me.)
I can see you like talking about this. But some of us need to go. Is there anything else you want us know? Were others involved in making it?
Sure. Who from my team wasn't involved? Rebecca and Joan insisted on us making it and organized our first focus groups. Our interns Monica and Lily helped with focus groups and organizing the nutrition facts. Britta oversaw the producing our samples. Saad is making the final version will keep adjusting the toasting times to finesse the process. Paula did the labels (with a team of chiefs telling her to try it this or that way). Our trainees, of course, will be doing all the hard work of making and packing it and even cutting the labels my hand. Meggean—well she kind of makes almost everything happen around here! And if any of you readers made it all the way though this blog during this age of digital media, then you can consider yourself an honorary member of our Super Muesli team and we'd love for you to try it and tell us what you really think. We do hope you love it.