March 4, 2010

Cereal company bowls a strike

— BARRINGTON, N.H. — Hello, my name is Meredith. I am a granola head.

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Thursday, Oct..29,2009. Adam Sirois, with a couple of friends, started me&goji, a custom cereal and granola company based in Barrington, N.H.

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Thursday, Oct..29,2009. Adam Sirois, with a couple of friends, started me&goji, a custom cereal and granola company based in Barrington, N.H. He is seen here filling a order.

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I admit I am powerless over a bowl of plain granola, which to a granola head is simply a blank canvas awaiting the full expression of my artistic vision.

(OK, so I mix metaphors along with my thick-cut rolled oats and flax seeds.)

In my kitchen cabinet there are currants, dried cranberries, almonds, walnuts and dates. I buy a granola that looks good as a base, and then throw in a few of these extras, along with three or four spoonfuls of yogurt (usually plain) and milk (usually skim).

It's tough to find a granola -- or cereal, for that matter -- that is a perfect match for my taste buds and eyeballs. I love the classic combination of banana chips and walnuts, but even that sometimes feels like there's something missing. Coconut flakes? Blueberries, maybe?

My favorite ready-made mix is Udi's Hawaiian, a granola from Colorado that contains rolled oats, wildflower honey, canola oil, coconut, bits of dried pineapple and -- here's the pièce de résistance -- ginger-toasted macadamia nuts. With plenty of plain yogurt added in, of course.

If you want to stay entirely local, try Grandy Oats Mainely Maple Granola topped with Maine Maple Yogurt from Smith Family Farm in Bar Harbor.

Turns out I am not alone in my quest for the perfect granola. Imagine my delight when I heard about Adam Sirois, a 2002 graduate of Berwick Academy and summer resident of Maine who last year started a custom artisanal cereal company with two of his friends. The three cereal connoisseurs are the founders of [me]&goji, a New Hampshire-based company that was recently featured on NBC's ''Today'' show.

[me]&goji allows customers to create their own cereal and granola products, which are only available online. I logged onto the company's Web site (www.meandgoji.com) a couple of weeks ago to find out how it works.

STEP 1: PICK YOUR BASE

First, I had to pick a cereal or granola base. My choices ranged from a gluten-free option called ''flaxed and flaked'' to an artisanal blend of multi-grain oat bran flakes, raw spelt flakes, raw barley flakes, raw rye flakes, wheat germ and amaranth seeds.

I chose -- what else -- the ''golden granola,'' which contained organic oats, honey, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, sunflower oil, sesame seeds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, coconut, wheat bran, walnuts, vanilla and sea salt. I dragged my choice into a virtual cereal bowl and moved on to the next step -- choosing from 50 or so other organic ingredients, from cherries and cranberries to pumpkin seeds and pecans.

If I changed my mind about something, I could drag it from the cereal bowl over to a little compost pile. Clever.

My choices were dried Maine blueberries, bananas and goji berries, the red (and red hot) superfruit from the Himalayas. As I added each ingredient, a Nutrition Facts label on the screen adjusted to show me the changes I was making in calories, fat content, carbohydrates and protein.

Next, I got to name my cereal. I typed in ''Meredith's Magnificent Granola,'' the name that would show up on my customized label. If I wanted to, I could send in a photo as well.

At checkout, I had the option of adding $1 for a ''green tag'' to offset the carbon footprint of my order. My order cost around $12, plus $4.99 for shipping.

I ordered on a Friday night. By Tuesday, my 30 ounces of hand-mixed granola had been delivered to my door in a cylinder that looks like a giant Pringles can. When I peeled back the foil seal, there was a tiny plastic bag on top that contained three golden raisins -- a little sample for me to try. Included was a note explaining that these raisins ''from the Hunza Valley are hand-picked, sun-dried, and the most delicious raisins you've never had!''

I felt like a kid fishing my toy out of a box of Frosted Flakes.

Next, I made the 90-minute trip to Barrington, N.H., where [me]&goji is hand-mixed for shipping. When I arrived at the company's tiny warehouse, Sirois was busy filling customized canisters for the Soul Train Music Awards. The person who organizes the gift tent had seen [me]&goji on the ''Today'' show and wanted some cereal, tout suite.

It was too late to make truly customized mixes, so Sirois was filling cylinders labeled ''Chaka's Cereal'' and ''Babyface's Breakfast'' with his favorite concoction: ''Adam's Apple,'' a mix made with a ''flaxed and flaked'' base, chewy bits of apple, ground cinnamon, cranberries, goji berries, golden raisins and pumpkin seeds. This is the mix that was picked as Food and Wine's ''best natural cereal.''

After he's filled a cylinder (they go through 60 a day), Sirois personally signs it so the customer knows who mixed the order.

Sirois said he and Alexander Renzi, his roommate in college, had always planned to go into business together. They met their third partner, Carl Johansson from Stockholm, when Johansson sublet a room from Sirois in New York City. The trio initially considered developing an American sake, but then Johansson mentioned that he knew of a German company that had been successful selling custom-made muesli.

A NATION OF CEREAL LOVERS

They could see immediately that the idea had legs. People are extremely passionate about their cereal in this country, Sirois said, ''and America is such a huge market that it had a lot of potential.''

The three entrepreneurs decided they wanted to do for cereal what Starbucks did for coffee -- make an entire experience out of it, from the selection of the coffee beans to the way it's put together in the cup.

''No one had really done that for cereal, so we just saw an opportunity where we could reposition it as a specialty food,'' Sirois said. ''Instead of getting some flakes that taste like cardboard and putting a couple of raisins in it, we'd load it with goji berries or Maine wild blueberries. We didn't sweeten our cereals, we just keep everything all natural and organic, which in turn made them taste better and be healthier.''

Their customers include people who have special needs such as avoiding gluten, athletes looking for a nutritional boost, and people like me who are just picky about what they put in their cereal bowls.

Allyson Felix, the 2008 Olympic gold medal sprinter, is a [me]&goji customer, Sirois said.

''She can really pack (her cereal) with protein,'' he said, ''or, if it's before a race, up the carbs.''

The company started out offering 30 different ingredients and has added about 20 more over the past year, including pistachios, quinoa and a wheat-free granola. Most of them were customer suggestions. Maine blueberries from Bar Harbor are the most popular item, followed by sliced almonds and goji berries.

Sirois, wearing gloves, measures out ingredients from big plastic containers that sit on the shelves of the warehouse. He fills a cylinder halfway, gives it a good shake, then adds the rest of the ingredients and tops it off with some flakes.

Sirois handed me a goldenberry, a new superfruit he discovered at a food show last year. The berries come from Peru, are chock full of antioxidants and have a high protein content for a fruit. Sirois warned me that they have a sweet-and-sour kick to them.

I popped it in my mouth. At first, it just tasted kind of sweet, like a raisin. Then suddenly the sour flavor exploded, and lingered for a while. People who like sour will love these.

Sirois is often asked about the cost of [me]&goji cereals. The average $12 cereal (that's for about 21 ounces) costs about 70 to 75 cents per serving, he said, compared with 60 cents per serving for the premium cereals you buy in the grocery store. That includes shipping. If you're ordering just flakes, it can be cheaper.

I did my own price comparison with several brands of granola. Most brands are around $5 or $6 for a 13-ounce package, but in the past few months I've seen granolas in some grocery stores edge up toward $7. Using the $6 granola for comparison, the [me]&goji brand comes out costing 11 cents more per ounce.

The cereal lovers out there will have to decide for themselves if having it exactly the way they want it, with no sugar added, is worth the extra cost.

''We're not trying to make something that's a novelty item or gimmick,'' Sirois said. ''We're trying to make the best cereal out there.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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20091030_cereal

John Patriquin

  


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