10: Michelle Pusateri of Nana Joes Granola

Ep 10_ Michelle Pusateri_The Curious Eater.png

The first time Michelle Pusateri, founder of Nana Joes Granola, realized her deep connection to food was when she moved from Houston to Chicago at five years old. She immediately missed everything about her old home - her friends, her house, her family, and most importantly, her grandmother’s (nana’s) homemade bread. From there, she continued to follow her fascination with the way people made food, from waiting tables and bartending, to attending the Culinary Institute of America, before working as a pastry chef at the Fairmont Hotel, Magnolia Brewing Company, and Nopa. Influenced by her nana’s cooking, and shaped by her father’s battle with cancer and her own struggles with addiction, Michelle started Nana Joes Granola in 2010, first selling at local farmer’s markets, then retailing at grocery stores like Bi-Rite Market and Whole Foods. As Nana Joes continues to grow, Michelle remains committed to putting community before profit; employing people, not machines; and always using wholesome ingredients.


Fondest food memory:

My father passed away in 2011 and I always think about him. I remember there was this one day, where he got a crazy idea - he wanted to make ravioli.  So we start making the ravioli, and the kitchen is getting messier and messier. It’s me, my brother, my sister and my dad because my mom had gone out for a little bit. So we’re making the ravioli, and then - I guess we had put it in some sort of pressure cooker - when we take the top off, it pops off and then ravioli and pasta sauce fly out, literally all over the kitchen.  And we’re all like, “oh my gosh, we gotta clean up, we gotta clean up” and my dad’s scared he’s going to get into so much trouble. We clean up the kitchen together until it’s spotless - we think we’re 100% in the clear. Dad’s not going to into trouble, and we’re not going to get into trouble. We end up having this kind of weird overcooked ravioli for dinner, which actually turned out to be so good. And so we all sit down to dinner and then my mom looks up - there’s literally ravioli on the ceiling.

A polaroid of Michelle’s parents.

A polaroid of Michelle’s parents.


Pei-Ru Ko: You were the second storyteller Real Food Real Stories ever featured, all the way back in 2014. That’s the longest we’ve ever gone between a gathering and a follow up conversation for the podcast, so we’re super excited to chat with you. Just jump in, we first wanted to ask if you could share with us your experience with the storytelling process when you first spoke with us. How that was and how did that influenced you?

Michelle Pusateri: Pei-Ru, you really helped me open up and tell my story authentically, and with feeling in it. And not just creating a dramatic story, but making a story that intrigues people into why I started Nana Joes Granola in the first place. That was really pivotal in the way that I looked at what I was doing and how I was doing business. That really helped me focus more on the actual heart side of what I was doing, and not just on the numbers and figures, but how my product actually affects people.

[The storytelling process] really helped me connect that piece of, “here’s the story that’s been hiding inside of me, that I haven't really expressed,” to being able to let it live outside of me, and let it live with my brand, instead of my brand just being a product on the grocery store shelves. That process let it have heart and soul.

Michelle sharing her story at her gathering in 2014.

Michelle sharing her story at her gathering in 2014.

PK: That’s beautiful. I’ve always found you to be a heart driven entrepreneur - did this experience shift your view on what it means to speak authentically and get the story of your brand out?

MP: Yeah, and just being vulnerable about it! That’s the biggest thing. First, starting a food business in 2010, which is when we started, was so much different than it is now. And even in 2014, it was so much different. I mean now, there are stories behind people’s brands, but back then, there really wasn’t. And I think back then, I was more afraid to share my story. Yeah, there was always heart and emotion at the farmer’s market, or when I was demoing, but I think the real heart came into it when I was able to sit in front of 50 people and tell my story.

PK: Over this time, Nana Joes has grown tremendously, and I’m sure that also came with its fair share of growing pains. Can you share some of the highs and lows of the last five years?

MP: The high is definitely being able to expand our brand and launching our paleo line. Another high is all of the amazing entrepreneurs that I’ve gotten to mentor and know as a friend. It feels so lonely sometimes when you’re doing the grind, working 17 hour days, and trying to make it work with the product integrity and the ingredients that you want, so those relationships are definitely the highlight of what I do.

I think some of the downsides are that you don’t really realize that with growth comes so much more responsibility and with that comes with legal problems. When you mix those two together, it can sometimes get a little tricky. Most of the time I just want to be in the kitchen, baking and doing research development, but I can’t always do that. Sometimes I have to go down to San Diego for Federal Trademark Court to keep Nana Joes Granola in tact. And I’m struggling with the question of how can you grow as a small business, but still continue to make the impact you’re making and keep everybody that supported you with you, instead of just leaving everybody behind? That’s definitely been a growth challenge for me.

Michelle and her granola bars.

Michelle and her granola bars.

PK: From the outside, it sounds like you always take these growing steps by bringing people with you, versus leaving them behind. And in that way, you might have to take steps that are more challenging instead of the fast track.

MP: I think so too. I’m also taking a step back and looking at my values, product integrity and ethics and asking, “ok, what exactly am I doing this for? What is this next growth expansion for? Is it for my ego? My community? Is it for that local agriculture [system] that I’ve been supporting for so long by buying their products? What is it all for?” And I think that that’s one of the big questions that I most often ask myself on the ‘I’m going to bring the community with me’ spectrum.

PK: It’s easy for consumers to focus on the product, but not the whole process of production and packaging. You’ve said that that’s important to you, and Nana Joes, and the way you run your business. You’ve also mentioned that part of that your work is all about changing the way people think about packaged food. What’s your current thinking around it and what’s the current state of packaged food, and how are you trying to change it?

MP: My stance is still the same, and in fact, it’s a lot stronger than it was before. In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of food companies come onto the scene and claim to be healthy, etc., and then when you turn the package around, the ingredients aren’t even organic, even though it claims to be natural and good for you. I still want to see a shift in the packaged food industry, which is why I’ve done what I’ve done for so long because I want to see that change in the packaged food industry.

I want to see whole food ingredients. I want to see people going to the grocery store with their children and really wanting them to pick our something super delicious that isn’t a pack of Oreos. When I do demos at grocery stores, what I see a lot of the time is people bargain shopping for food. And they look at the price of $9 granola - which is why I wrote that blog post on my website, Why Pay $9 For a Bag of Granola. One time I was standing next to a sale on Oreos, two bags for $5, at a demo in Sacramento, and the woman said that $9 was way too expensive for granola. So she turns and says, “Oh, look, there’s a sale! 2 for 5!” and then she kind of looked at me. It was a little passive aggressive, but it was also a little bit like, now I can get 2 bags of cookies for $5 instead of getting your granola for $9. And I had this moment where I felt so sorry for her, that she felt like it was more important to bargain shop for her food, than to actually get something that would sustain her until lunch time.

You eat 2, 3, Oreo cookies and what happens? 10 minutes later, you’re starving, because you’ve eaten so much sugar and your body’s like, “actually, I need something better than that” or it starts feeding on the sugar and just makes you crave it more. So my stand is very important - look at what you’re putting in your body and know that what you’re putting into your body is actually good for you and that it’s supporting a community of farmers, that it’s supporting a community of women who worked really hard to make it. And there’s so much more than the actual ingredients themselves, it’s also what going on behind the scenes to get that granola, which is where the price point comes in.

We employ people, not machines. And that’s been another thing that we’ve been trying to push recently, in our posts - people, not machines. And what that means is that we don’t go out and get investment money to get $5 million worth of equipment, to make granola cheaper by not using people. There’s so many shortcuts in the CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) world, which is a great shortcut if you want to go out and make a bunch of money and give it back to a community, that’s awesome. But that’s not what we stand for. We want to uplift from within.

Nana Joe’s Sunset blend.

Nana Joe’s Sunset blend.

PK: Is there a taste difference when it’s made by people, versus machines?

MP: I absolutely think so. And I don’t know - I could be completely crazy in that assessment,  but I know when people try our granola, they always say it’s the best granola they’ve ever had. It’s because it’s fresh, and because we can actually make it in smaller runs. A lot of times when you use a co-packer, or when you use equipment, you don’t use it for 300 bags, which is what we do. We can do a 500 bag run that goes directly to the stores that week and even that next day. And when you use machines and you do co-packing, you have to do 4000, 5000 bag runs, or sometimes even 50,000 bag runs. You just put it on a palette, then put it in cold storage, and hope and pray that you sell it all. And instead we have a handmade product, that you would get from a friend, or relative, but it’s packaged up on the grocery store shelf. Which is something that has always been really important to us - that we make and produce every single week.

PK: Thank you so much for gatekeeping for all of us. There's such a disconnect when we shop for packaged food. You stop wondering how fresh it is, and how much care there’s been before. But if we go to a restaurant, we would never want a chef to use old fish, ingredients or vegetables, and to just use sugar to mask the taste. But we give up our agency when we look at packaged foods. So this is a huge reminder for us, so thank you for gatekeeping for us all.

MP: I want to keep this as authentic as possible and “I made this for you in my home kitchen, and put it into a bag.” You’re going to go to the grocery store and open it up and feel that love, and the freshness, and you’re going to smell and taste it. And I’ve been told that I’m crazy, I’ve been told that I’m never going to make this business work, unless I start doing things differently. And there was just an article in Entrepreneur Magazine about a company that I love so much, Hu Kitchen. And one of the things it said was “we never caved on what we were supposed to do and not supposed to do.”

 It’s changing, and I feel it, and I love it. And I’m not competitive. Sure, there are times where I look at Instagram and I’m like, “why am I not there, now?” But like one person who said, who’s now got their granola all over the country, and all over the world said, “Be careful for what you wish for.” So I think there are going to be sides to everything. And if you stick with your mission statement, beliefs, and your ethical reasoning behind why you started the business, I think that you can’t not succeed.

Michelle in the kitchen.

Michelle in the kitchen.

PK: You mentioned your sobriety. 12 years, first of all - congratulations. We love following you and Nana Joes on social media and really appreciate your vulnerability in sharing what’s happening behind the scenes, like talking about your journey to sobriety. You wrote a post about it on April 20th, about the importance of believing in yourself and how hard it is to own a business. So can you share a little more on taking chances and why you decided to talk about this part of your story with your business?

MP: Yeah, that it’s part of me, and that post was mostly about - I’ve shared little pieces of it through Nana Joes’ granola social media. Sharing more about it is important because it’s such a huge part of who I am. I wouldn’t have my business if I wasn’t sober. I mostly likely wouldn’t be alive if I wasn’t sober. I think that sharing that, and being open about it and being vulnerable allows someone who may have been in my shoes to be like “dude, I could totally do that. I could get sober, I could start a business, it’s possible.”

When I see someone struggling, I always ask- “what can I do for you?” I’m always here for you, you just have to reach out. If you don’t share that part of you, and you’re a business owner, then people look at you like, “oh, they have no problems whatsoever, nothing’s ever happened to them in their life, everything’s perfect, everything’s fine.” I think it’s important to share your journey so people don’t feel so damn alone.

PK: You have gone another mile in terms of how a business can do good, and how a business can bring light and help us heal and help other people to see- yes  I can quit, and go after this dream. And yes, it’s all possible. And I think that’s beautiful. So what’s next on the horizon for Nana Joes? What are you excited about?

MP: I’ve got some really cool stuff I can’t yet talk about coming up in the next couple months, so keep an eye out on social media. Follow on Instagram @nanajoesgranola, and sign up for our newsletter. We also have some really cool collaborations happening that I’m so stoked about. And then on the flip side, we’re just growing a lot. We just got into distribution in December and it’s our first time - I trust them with all my heart and it’s totally changed our business. There’s been stores that have wanted our granola for so long, and once we hit distribution, now it’s out there.

Michelle with bags of Nana Joes Granola.

Michelle with bags of Nana Joes Granola.

PK: Well, it’s super exciting, we’ll be following along to see what the big secrets are that can’t talk about just yet, and cheer you on. And thank you so much chatting with us here. Thank you for sharing your story many years ago, and thank you being a part of our community ever since and sharing a little more about where you are today. We can’t wait to see where else you go, and we’ll be cheering for you.

MP: Thank you so much!