When Michele Liddle went back to work after her second daughter was born, she was at a crossroads. She felt unfulfilled with her job selling industrial electric motors. And her schedule was brutal, traveling from her upstate New York home to the southeastern part of the country two to three weeks out of every month. She was still nursing her baby, so she was pumping and shipping breast milk home.
Even though she was exhausted and overworked, Liddle needed a source of inspiration. When she started volunteering at a local food pantry on Friday afternoons, she noticed that there weren’t many healthy or allergy-free options available. She wanted to create a product that she could share with food pantries—and hire the food insecure people who visited the food pantries to sell it.
By putting in hours of effort after her daughters' bedtime, her small idea has since blossomed into The Perfect Granola, a company she now runs full-time with five employees. Her products are sold in supermarkets across America.
But as Liddle, 37, said, “We’ve never been about the granola. Yes, we sell granola, but we’re not a granola company. We’re mission-first. The granola was something to sell to fuel my other ideas on how to fix hunger.”
Liddle shares 5 percent of profits with homeless shelters, outreach centers and food banks, but that’s only one of the many ways The Perfect Granola fulfills its mission.
Since she founded the company in 2016, Liddle, who lives in Victor, New York, has been implementing inventive and successful ways to help food-insecure families throughout the country. With each jump in granola sales, Liddle adds a new mission-focused partnership. For example, Liddle used profits from the company's launch in Wal-Mart stores to become a sponsor for the New York State Special Olympics. She said, “We’re constantly looking for more avenues to sell product—the more we grow, the more we can help the community.”
The first ingredients
Starting a business, of course, wasn’t smooth sailing.
After all, Liddle was attempting to start a business in a risky field that was already oversaturated with product. Liddle credits reverse engineering with helping her navigate.
She didn’t start with a defined product at all. Instead, Liddle prospected local stores and farm markets with the idea of creating a healthy product that could help food-insecure families. She had already been making granola at home for years for her family, so she put it in snack bags and added sticker labels. Since Liddle wasn't sure exactly which store executives she should be targeting, she blindly addressed snack packs to "Purchasing" and hoped that someone in charge of buying products opened them. “I didn’t know who I needed to talk to. I knew how to sell, but I was selling motors at the time, not food,” Liddle said.
In early 2016, a representative from Wegmans, a 100-store supermarket chain headquartered in Rochester, New York, called her in for a meeting after receiving her snack pack. They loved her idea—and her granola.
Wegmans gave her a month-and-a-half to refine her product, and in that time, Liddle hustled to finalize the recipe and create branding and packaging. Shortly thereafter, The Perfect Granola was being sold in every Wegmans store. “I had a Wegmans account before I had a product,” Liddle said. “I like to mitigate risk by making sure demand is there first, and then I figure it out.”
Her recipe for success
Liddle followed the same path for her manufacturing process. At a parent-teacher association meeting in her children’s school district, a fellow mom suggested that she sell her granola bars to school lunch programs. At the time, Liddle’s granola contained nuts, so it couldn’t be used in schools.
After approaching the school system and getting the green light in 2019 (again, without a nut-free product at the time), she developed a new granola blend that was free of milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. It was also fat-free, sodium-free and cholesterol-free. To ensure that the manufacturing process was completely allergen-free and eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination, Liddle used her knowledge of industrial motors to have brand-new machinery custom built. The Perfect Granola was ready for school consumption.
But Liddle wasn’t just trying to raise profits to donate that 5 percent—her sales and process benefit farmers, schools and underserved adults.
Liddle joined the New York Farm-to-School Program (which helps bring additional funding to schools that use local food producers) as the first New York State grown and certified prepackaged grain. She works with Foodlink (part of the Feeding America Network) to expand their workforce development training program, which helps individuals with barriers to sustainable employment find middle-skills careers. Liddle was able to add industrial food manufacturing to the program, creating a sustainable revenue stream for the organization. She also donates thousands of dollars and thousands of products to a number of organizations in upstate New York—and across the country—that provide meals to families in need.
Food for thought
Liddle emphasized that education can be a way out of poverty. She said, “Donations won’t fix hunger. They put a Band-Aid on things. We will continue to donate—but to fix hunger, we have to get to our kids.”
In that spirit, Liddle teams up with the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection. She hires teenagers at risk of not graduating high school to do product demonstrations in stores. They learn about sales and customer service, and there’s even a banking program that teaches them about direct deposit and overdraft protection. Liddle says that it’s truly a partnership: “If the students aren’t going to school and passing their classes, they can’t work. We go to their football games and school events to really support them in all aspects of their lives.”
The impact of this type of partnership can be clearly seen in increased graduation rates. Though only 52 percent of Rochester City School District students gradate high school, 93 percent of students employed with Hillside’s job partners graduate high school.
A lot on her plate…
Exciting things are in store for Liddle and her company. The Perfect Granola is now sold in 48 states at stores like Wegmans, Wal-Mart and Kroger. As a 2019 finalist in the Stacy’s Rise Project to help female-founded food and beverage brands, Liddle received mentorship from executives at PepsiCo who connected her with a designer to refresh her packaging (launching in April/May). She has a unique partnership announcement coming up with the Special Olympics, and she wants to continue to create sustainable revenue streams for organizations so they won’t have to rely on grants for funding.
Though she is now in a position to help other companies, the journey was not easy for Liddle. For the first year-and-a-half, she was still working a full-time job and caring for her 1- and 5-year-old daughters…and then she added part-time work to financially fuel the company.
Twice, Liddle pitched her idea to potential investors who happened to be male. They said she would never put her company first because she was a mom. Liddle responded, “You’re right. I’ll never put anything in front of my kids—but how can I not do my best and try my hardest and show my kids how to do this?”
She continued, “There’s nothing that won’t allow me to show my kids that anything and everything is possible—I’m going to show my kids how to change the world.”