As GrandyOats prepares to celebrate its 35th anniversary, the Brownfield granola company is benefiting from a national surge in demand for oatmeal and organic foods while staying true to its roots by making its 40 organic products by hand.

The company, which employs 18 people, is close to outgrowing the barn GrandyOats moved into in 2002, so an expansion or addition may be in its future. GrandyOats, named 2013’s Producer of the Year by the Maine Grocers Association and the Maine Food Producers Alliance, produces more than 900,000 pounds of granola, trail mix and roasted nut products annually. It can produce 4,000 to 5,000 pounds on a peak day. But it still mixes every product by hand.

Sales grew 30 percent this year, but the company declined to disclose the total value of sales and profits.

“A lot of other companies go the easiest path. We take the path less traveled,” said co-owner Aaron Anker.

“We enjoy eating lunch with our crew rather than micromanaging the numbers,” co-owner Nat Peirce said. “We make it by hand in rural Maine and we feel it’s important to be employing people in rural Maine. It matters to us.”

The best-selling product is still the original, classic granola that started the company in 1979, followed by the company’s high antioxidant trail mix.

Peirce and Anker met at University of New Hampshire’s restaurant management school.

“We were the two guys on campus who drove VW buses,” Anker said.

After graduation in 1994, they went their separate ways and then bumped into each other at a concert in Portland in 1998.

By then, Anker was selling and promoting juice for the company now known as Odwalla Inc. after stints in corporate restaurant management and running a vegetarian and vegan bistro in Colorado. Peirce had run a cafe and bakery in Bridgton called the Bountiful Berry before buying GrandyOats from its original owners, Sarah Carpenter and Penny Hood. Anker joined GrandyOats as co-owner in 2000.

“Both of us came to the realization that quality of life is important,” Anker said. “Neither of us have focused on dimes and nickels. We’ve always looked at the big picture. My grandfather always said that ‘pigs get fat and hogs go to slaughter.’ We want to grow it slow and steady.”

GrandyOats has worked to diversify its sales outlets. United Natural Foods is its biggest customer, distributing products to Whole Foods, Wegman’s, Hannaford and independent stores such as Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport. It also sells to universities and colleges, inns and bed-and-breakfasts.

Its sales area runs from Maine south to Florida and west to Minnesota.

“Our biggest success is the diversity of our venues. A lot of competitors have limited span of where they’re selling,” Peirce said.

With a diversified sales channel, the company can use certain outlets like universities to test new products – a gluten-free granola, for example – that it may broaden to its retail accounts. Another recent creation – its ancient grains hot cereal – also is being tested in universities.

United Natural Foods said GrandyOats manages to set itself apart because it continues to tweak its product offerings while maintaining its organic roots.

“They take the time to learn about what’s going on in the supermarket and retail world. What people want and ask for – they already are doing. They get it. They understand customers,” said Crystel Suhr, United Natural Foods’ lead buyer for bulk foods. “They try to source a lot from their area and support their community.”

Other companies are frequently trying to copy GrandyOats packaging or trying to mirror their product offerings.

“It’s really hard, though, to copy the relationships we’ve built,” Anker said. “Our biggest competition is that there are quite a few granolas out there. Some looked like small brands, but have been invested in by a Kellogg’s or General Mills. There’s also cottage industry, small brands, out there. But more and more people are eating granola, so that’s good for all of us,” Anker said.

One boon for the company has been the success of oatmeal in recent years as national chains like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Jamba Juice began putting their marketing efforts behind ready-to-eat oatmeal. GrandyOats launched an instant oatmeal product two years ago.

“It helps us. People are aware of the category more. It brings awareness to the segment,” Peirce said.

According to NPD Group, a market-research firm, oatmeal consumption went from 7.7 percent of all breakfasts in 2005 to 9.9 percent in 2010.

Appearances of oatmeal have nearly doubled at the top U.S. chain restaurants since Starbucks launched its “Perfect Oatmeal” in 2008.

In 2013, there were 68 oatmeal items on 52 restaurant menus, up from 31 items on 26 menus in 2009, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor database, which covers the incidence of oatmeal on menus at the Top 500 chains in the U.S. as well as a representative set of emerging and regional chains. Technomic is a consulting and research firm serving the food industry.

“It’s crazy, though, what they’re putting into their oatmeals. There are so many unnecessary ingredients. Oatmeal is about the simplest recipe there is. There are four ingredients: oats, cranberries, raisins and apples,” Anker said.

GrandyOats has had talks with potential investors, but then realized that that’s not the right path for the company.

“We’re not in a rush. This is a lifestyle business. We’re not trying to blow up big to sell the company. We’re not taking on investors, because otherwise we’d have to be quick to market and have specific performance metrics to meet,” Anker said.

“When you have investors, they’re driving the bus and push you in directions they may want to you to go in,” Peirce said.

In the fall of 2001, GrandyOats purchased a major New England competitor, Uncle Roy’s. They have no other acquisition plans in place. “We’re growing and also having fun,” Anker said. “We call ourselves a family. We try to treat each other with respect. We try to be there for people and be flexible about how they work.”

Jessica Hall may be reached at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@pressherald.com

@JessicaHallPPH