By Natalie Wise
For granola lovers, True North Granola is the North Star: Follow the scent of toasting pecans, warm maple syrup, and all manner of spices, nuts and dried fruits off Interstate 91 in Brattleboro, Vermont, to the edge of the Connecticut River, then down a corridor in the unassuming Cotton Mill building …
And voila! You’re at the center of the universe for granola goodness.
As granola aficionados know, granola must be crunchy, but not too crunchy.
The ingredients can’t be too hard or dry, and must retain their original flavors.
Granola needs to strike the right balance of oats (or nuts, in the case of True North Granola’s Nutty No-Grainer) to ingredients, and it has to hold up when drenched in milk or drizzled with yogurt and honey.
True North Granola founders Franklin and Ingrid Chrisco improved upon the crunchy pantry staple by doing all of the above. And they make sure their granola isn’t overly sweet, that it’s made with healthy fats and ingredients, and that it’s low in carbohydrates.
Of course, ultimately, their granola has to taste great.
Franklin and Ingrid had decades of experience making granola at home for themselves. But it wasn’t their intention to start a granola business.
“It was a delightful hobby that gave us some relief from the intensity of our jobs,” Ingrid said.
But when friends and family persisted in asking for more of their granola, the Chriscos thought that maybe it was time to sell their creation.
True North Granola opened in 2006.
Family and friends spread the word about the granola, and soon the two lifelong educators — he taught fifth and sixth grade for 41 years and she was an English teacher and middle school principal for 44 — found themselves growing a business after long days at work. As Franklin and Ingrid headed into their “retirement” after several years of doing both, they were able to spend more time building the business.
In the beginning, the couple spent summer weekends selling their granola at the Brattleboro Farmers Market. There, they received feedback, tested new flavors and gained loyal local fans.
Since 2006, they haven’t missed a summer at their corner booth at the Farmers Market, and it’s typically Franklin you’ll see handing out samples. The Brattleboro Food Co-op was another eager supporter in the company’s early stages, and True North Granola’s shelf presence there caught the interest of other co-ops in the region.
In year one, the Chriscos sold 500 pounds of their original granola. Within a few years, they expanded to 17 varieties, including gluten-free and nut-free flavors. It was time to expand.
Four years into the business, a move to Brattleboro’s Cotton Mill, home to a number of local food manufacturing businesses, allowed for a substantial increase in production.
With 17 varieties and a regional presence, True North Granola was soon in high demand — from bulk orders from university dining halls to a boutique hotel in Manhattan and from Amazon to the Brattleboro 7-Eleven.
Once again, the Chriscos needed to expand to keep up with demand and nearly doubled their space in the Cotton Mill.
True North Granola now bakes 50,000 pounds of granola a year with Maple-Vanilla Gluten Free being the most popular. Each batch is handmade by experienced bakers.
“We hear repeatedly that our product makes people happy, and that’s the most rewarding thing about the business,” Ingrid said.
For the Chriscos, it’s important that their product is “handmade in Vermont.” And they say it’s important that they work to better the community, not only with their personal lives, but with their business.
But of course, some of the ingredients that go into each variety aren’t locally available. Macadamia nuts from New England? It just can’t happen. But True North uses local ingredients whenever possible, like the maple syrup from Hidden Springs Maple up the road in Putney.
Since Ingrid retired 3 1/2 years ago, she’s been pouring even more of her time and effort into the business.
Ingrid and her husband are “All in,” she said.
“We do spend a great deal of our waking time working in and on the business,” Ingrid said. “We are loving every bit of our work right now and are driven by the quality of the products.”
Their dedication and hard work has garnered the support of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses Program, an investment program designed to help small businesses grow. True North was one of 150 businesses picked from 2,000 applicants. This cohort of small business mentors and colleagues is inspiring the Chriscos even moreso. A fellow small business, an engineering firm, has NASA as its sole contract. Perhaps we’ll see True North granola literally up in the stars?
While the Chriscos don’t envision True North Granola on every grocery store shelf in the United States, they do want Americans to know and love their product through more specialty channels.
“We’re growing, we’re building more awareness, we’re finding new avenues as we listen, and loving every bit of it,” Ingrid said. “We think True North Granola is a well-kept secret, and we’re ready to let the secret out of the bag.”
The Chriscos’ advice for starting a ‘made in Vermont’ food business:
“Vermont specialty food products have a strong cache, which is why we put on our labels, ‘Handmade in Vermont.’ We hear that from customers wherever we go,” says Ingrid Chrisco. Here are some of her best business tips:
- Start with quality products.
- Believe in what you do.
- Know your mission and your vision.
- Start small. Try your product out on family and friends first — and your local farmers market!
- Don’t be afraid to walk in the door of a business and show your products and talk about them.
- Be ethical, creative and work with integrity.
- When you do hire employees, treat everyone with respect and create a collaborative work environment.
Where to find True North Granola:
- Brattleboro Farmers Market, Brattleboro, Vt.
- Brattleboro Food Co-op, Brattleboro, Vt.
- Putney Food Co-op, Putney, Vt.
- Whole Foods, Hadley, Mass.
- Brattleboro Memorial Hospital Dining and Café, Brattleboro, Vt.
- University of Vermont Medical Center, Burlington, Vt.
- Landmark College Café, Putney, Vt.
- Cabot Cheese Store, Quechee, Vt.
- River Valley Market, Northampton, Mass.
- Green Fields Market, Greenfield, Mass.
Natalie Wise has a masters degree in poetry from Dartmouth and is the author of four books. When she isn’t writing, she is likely baking or spending time exploring this beautiful area with her husband and their chocolate lab.