His company, Columbia County Bread and Granola, makes super-healthful, flax seed granola and sprouted-wheat breads. The business was given a boost when the granola was endorsed by high-profile nutrition gurus; it was slapped back to earth by a fire that destroyed its kitchen last year.
But Michael has persevered and grown the company; he recently opened the Bakers Guild Café at 225 Center Street in downtown Bloomsburg, where the company started. There, customers can try the bread for themselves as part of a health-conscious meal.
Michael has also fostered a union for his employees to help them be an active voice in the community, and is seeking a way to have them share in ownership of the company. He has already helped employees in his shipping department start their own shipping business.
With a degree in marketing from Ohio State University, Michael says he couldn’t have predicted that he would be running his own bakery someday.
What inspired you to start Columbia County Bread and Granola?
After living in [New York City], my ex-wife and I moved to Westchester County and got a dog. After walking the dog through a field, I almost immediately got Lyme disease. It changed things, because even with antibiotics, it’s hard to know if you’re ever free of it.
I got interested in the possibility of controlling it with diet — a friend recommended Nourishing Traditions, a book by Sally Fallon. In reading it, I found out about Weston A. Price, a dentist in the 1930s in Cleveland, Ohio. His patients coming from Eastern Europe would have perfect teeth and perfect health, and within a year of living here their teeth would decay and their health deteriorate.
He started studying indigenous cultures in the South Seas, Australia and the Polar regions. He came back and advocated for pastured meats, sprouted grains and raw milk — all integral to pre-industrial human diets. I got interested in sprouted grains.
By this time, I had gotten divorced, and my girlfriend, whose family had a cottage in Bloomsburg, applied for a job there. We moved there in 2007.
I continued to work as a freelancer and I was making sprouted-grain bread. We moved into a house with a convection oven which cut the baking time in half. There was a farmers’ market just around the corner and I started selling the bread there. I also developed granola using flax.
How did you turn that into a company?
I founded the company in 2008 when I registered with the state as a certified home kitchen. I hired a visual art student from Bloomsburg University to design our packaging. Now he works for a big ad agency in Harrisburg, but he still works with us; all of our packaging is his work.
I developed a bit of a following at the farmers’ market and gave one of my customers some of the granola. He took it to a friend of his in New York who was looking for such a product. She called me, came out to Bloomsburg and talked about a program she was developing.
It turned out that “she” was Lyn Genet. She wrote a book called The Plan, which became a New York Times best-seller. Then she went on The Dr. Oz Show in January 2013, and they sat down and ate the granola. We got close to half a million dollars worth of orders after that.
Her plan was that you start by eating a cup of the granola every morning for nine days to cleanse your system. During that time, you avoid foods that are reactive to many people. Then you reintroduce those foods one at a time to see which are reactive, causing problems like bloating and inflammation. The Plan also helps people lose weight.
When the business started taking over our house, we needed to move. A kitchen opened up across the street in an old Moose Lodge. We jumped on it, secured a lease and baked there for a while. But it was destroyed by a fire last year. We were dislocated for nine months. During that time, we rented kitchens at the Elks Lodge, in churches — anyplace that would let us bake there.
While we were dislocated, I didn’t want to rent kitchen space by the hour for packaging, so I found a little café with a certified kitchen, and the owner let us do packaging there. This later became our café.
How has the company grown?
My first hire was Michael Perakovich, who turned out to be a brilliant guy. When the granola thing happened, it became so time-consuming for me that I had to give him the bread. At that time I was still using yeast, and finishing with a certain amount of flour.
He figured out how to get us completely off of yeast and flour. It became a bread with three ingredients: sprouted wheat, water and salt.
We found a school that closed in Danville; it has a kitchen and plenty of space. We’re converting the classrooms into offices. We recently opened the Bakers Guild Café. We have 10 full-time employees (bakers and packagers) and a few part-time employees.
We ship granola products all over the country, and our products are sold on Amazon and in a few stores in the Northeast. At this point we don’t have a distributor, but once we scale up, we might look for one.
Did you take advantage of any resources in the area in getting your company off the ground?
I was able to hire my artist through an internship program sponsored by the [Keystone Innovation Zone], and we also qualified for tax credits through them; our innovation was that we were completely redefining bread.
The Bloomsburg office of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern PA got interested in us last year when I explained to Larry Seibert, the manager, what we were doing. He invited me to apply for a jump-start loan. That provided the money to hire an engineering crew from Penn State University to come into our new space and determine how we could put in a line of ovens. We now have that plan to take to the bank to show why we need the money, to improve our capacity and cut costs. The loan also helped us hire a marketing strategy firm to identify what our best opportunities are.
What is the big differentiator for your products?
In terms of bread, there are sprouted breads, but they invariably use gluten and yeast. A lot of gluten-free breads contain cornstarch and tapioca, potato and rice starches, which spike higher on the glycemic index than wheat starch. Our bread has a high fiber count and it’s low-glycemic, and while it’s not gluten-free, it’s low enough in gluten that people with gluten intolerance can eat it with no problem.
As for the granola, most of the companies that make granola add honey to oats, then add other ingredients. Most of them are very high in sugar and salt. Ours has flax seed and water, no salt, and we add cinnamon and a little molasses. That’s the basis. Then we add things in. Customers can also order it the way they want it.
What’s next for your company?
We’re trying to create a bigger market for the bread. With the café, we want to build the menu around the bread. I gave [Perakovich] an opportunity to figure out how to make muffins, and he has come up with a recipe that uses sprouted wheat, adding baking soda and powder. It works really well. There’s no flour in our kitchen.
We hope to get a loan to put in the line of ovens and make more granola with a more automated process. We were really hurt by the fire and need to increase revenues to recover from that.
Writer: Susan L. Pena
1605 Bloom Road Danville, PA 17821-8660