Montpelier has always had a "crunchy" reputation, but research - in the bulk-bin section of the Hunger Mountain Co-op - suggests it could very well be the Granola Capital of the World. Within 10 miles of the Statehouse, three enterprising food producers are making granola on an industrial scale: Butterfly Bakery, Nutty Steph and the Manghis. Their combined annual output? Around 30 tons. That's roughly 7.5 pounds of granola for each of Montpelier's 8000 residents.
People have strong feelings about granola. Some swear by it. Others scoff.
"Nutty" Steph Rieke has perfected it. The 27-year-old is the city's most visible and productive cereal entrepreneur. She makes about half of Montpelier's granola, and markets it locally using a vegetable-oil-fueled "granolamobile." A sign on the side encourages motorists to "honk for your free sample of granola." She gets stopped "a lot more, now that I've got my car cleaned," she quips. "Probably eight honks a day . . . I've done 80 mph handoffs on the Interstate."
Rieke's product packaging illustrates her enthusiasm for it: a childlike rendering of her pulling a red wagon filled with granola.
Rieke practices what she preaches: She eats her product every day. The crunchy stuff is in her blood. Her aunt was the official granola maker for a 13-member Oregon commune in the '70s. Rieke reasons, "If you need a granola maker for 13 people, then you figure: This is a town of 8000. Seems we need well over three granola makers." In the larger central Vermont region, she estimates there are about nine others.
Twenty-six-year-old Claire Fitts of Montpelier's Butterfly Bakery is among the cereal set. But her first granola-making experience, in the Hunger Mountain kitchen, was a case of unintentional reverse engineering. She was baking a batch of apple-cinnamon granola bars when they crumbled into their separate components. "In an effort to not waste what I produced, I put it in bags and sold it at the co-op," she explains. "It sold really well."
"One of my philosophies is that I want something to be as healthy as possible," Fitts says. But not at the expense of taste. With a chuckle, she adds, "If it tastes like crap, you're not going to eat it."
Baker Paul Manghi, 60, agrees. "All these health trends come and go," says the bearded and bespectacled co-owner of The Manghis' Bread. He and his wife Elaine, also 60, started producing 90 pounds of granola every Tuesday as a way to address a mid-week sales slump at their downtown Montpelier bakery, which for 23 years has been sandwiched between Kellogg-Hubbard Library and Guare & Sons Funeral Home. "If people have been buying our granola for the past 20 years, it's because they like it."
The Manghis eat their granola nearly every morning. "We never get sick," says Elaine. "I don't know if it's the bread, or the granola."
How healthy is granola, which is really nothing more than toasted oats with some kind of sweetener, easily whipped up at home? "It's pretty good for you," says Kasey Chimura, 30, a dietetic intern at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin. "I personally love granola. Some dieticians might say that it's high in fat and higher in calories than other cereals. I find that it's higher in fiber . . . it's high in protein from the oats."
Obligatory oats are just the beginning. The list of optional ingredients goes on and on: fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, wheat germ and brewer's yeast. Add candy and it becomes trail mix. Unbaked, it falls into the muesli family. Bind it together with some sticky stuff, form it into bars and dip it in chocolate, and - presto! - it's a granola bar, the currency of soccer moms nationwide.
In his book Braindroppings, George Carlin writes, "Granola bars didn't sell very well when they were good for you. Now they have caramel, chocolate, marshmallow, saturated fat and sweeteners, and a small amount of oats and wheat. Sales picked up."
The 32-year-old executive director of the Montpelier Downtown Community Association is a regular granola eater. Suzanne Hechmer makes her own from a family recipe, and sometimes douses it with orange juice instead of milk. But she's nonetheless surprised to learn of Montpelier's crunchy claim to fame and thinks out loud about ways to capitalize on it. A granola festival, perhaps with a granola cook-off? Granola-stock? Granola-roo? Promoted properly, it could draw quite a crowd. But, then again, most of the crowd is already here.
"A granola head? It's the person who spends $150 on a Patagonia jacket at a sports store. A person with a kayak tied to the roof rack," says Jacob Grossi, 33, of Montpelier's Riverwalk Records. His shop features a variety of counterculture commodities: vinyl records, psychedelic posters and old issues of Rolling Stone magazine, which emerged on the scene at just about the same time granola and hippies invaded Vermont.
"Tree-hugger," chimes in one of Grossi's thirtysomething customers who has just plunked down good money for an original 1968 newspaper ad announcing a Sir Douglas Quintet concert somewhere in California. In one word he has captured the essence of a granola head - or reinforced a stereotype.
The irony, Grossi notes, is that the current generation of hippies is more likely to opt for "a breakfast of coffee and cigarettes." Another observation: "I think the localvores are making it rather than buying it."
Some might be, but a trip to Hunger Mountain Co-op shows just how much granola is being produced commercially - not only in Vermont, but across the U.S. Here dozens of clear, granola-filled plastic bins line the wall like fine wines on display. They lure customers with names such as "Raspberries 'n' Cream" and "French Vanilla and Blueberry Flax."
Appearance, too, is important. Some granolas, especially those from the large commercial manufacturers, have a pale, chalky look to them - lots of oats but little of the stuff that makes granola tasty in the bowl, sprinkled on top of yogurt or ice cream, or as part of a parfait.
Michael White, 35, assistant bulk buyer for the co-op, knows his granola. "It's uncanny that we have so many in our store." He also knows which sell best - he's the guy who refills the bins. White says there is definitely brand loyalty among the three Montpelier-made granolas. Nutty Steph's is the number-one bestseller - she moves 50 pounds a week.
Who are his customers? White says they're from across the board. "We have the 80-year-old Vermonter who brings in and fills up his Mason jar. And little kids."
Back in her office at City Hall, Suzanne Hechmer taste-tests each of the three granolas, cleansing her palate with tea. She tries each of the unmarked samples, Goldilocks-style. "Just the right sweetness," she says of the first. "Not as crunchy, but more complex," of sample two. "Hmm? This one is the 'oatiest,'" she says of sample three. Each, she says, has a unique texture and flavor. In the end, number two wins. It tastes better, she says. Her preferred granola brand is the same as the rest of Montpelier's: Nutty Steph's.