Prospering Company: Michaelene’s Gourmet Granola

A group of pregnant women helped Michaelene Hearn realize the power of granola.

It was more than 25 years ago, when Hearn was an instructor for a local Lamaze class for expectant parents. She noticed the mothers-to-be were indulging in some less-than-nutritious snacks like chips and cookies. As a proponent of healthful eating even then, Hearn entreated the mothers to snack on something healthier — something more like granola.

Hearn, a mother of four, was already making her own granola; it was a nutritious staple during all of her pregnancies. So she started to bring in some granola for her students, giving them the recipe to make their own at home.

They loved Hearn’s granola, but not when they made it. “People came to me and said, ‘I tried to make it and it didn’t taste like yours. So you make it and I’ll pay you,'” Hearn says. “That’s how it started.”

So in 1984, Hearn started Michaelene’s Gourmet Granola, renting a small pizza parlor’s kitchen in the morning to bake batches of Nutty Raisin granola for direct sale. The business grew, and in 1987, Hearn opened her own bakery in Clarkston.

Today she has 18 varieties of granola, including some diabetic-friendly kinds, others bursting with real dried fruit and whole nuts, and still others she calls “Sweetnola,” Dessert Granola with chocolate. The granola isn’t saturated with sweetness – it’s hearty and honest but flavorful.

“I’ve always kept my focus on quality,” says Hearn, adding she tries to buy local products, like Michigan-grown cherries and blueberries, when she can.

It is a testament indeed to the quality of the product when you consider that Michaelene’s Gourmet Granola is a successful business entering its 26th year and has done almost no advertising.

“Advertising we’ve never really done,” she says. “A lot of it’s word-of-mouth. We have a lot of repeat customers.”

The business was direct sales until 2007, when Hearn finally took it to a small distributor that now sells it in upscale grocery stores like Hiller’s Market and Holiday Market. The company still only has five employees that make the granola from scratch.

Hearn wouldn’t have it any other way. See, if you talk to her, she’ll tell you that for most of the business’s history, she was primarily focused on being a mother to her four children. Any business she had came second.

Then there was a concern about quality. Specifically, Hearn just didn’t think the granola would taste as good if it was mass-produced. For Michaelene’s Gourmet Granola to be true to its name, it needs to be homemade in small batches.

“We were a pioneer in producing really healthy granola,” she says. It’s “the real stuff, not the artificial stuff. … Our focus has always been on the quality of the product.”

That integrity has served her well. The granola has a loyal following, including department stores, restaurants and airlines. In 1995, an airline asked Hearn to supply granola for Pope John Paul II’s return flight home from his visit to the United States.

Still, two years ago, Hearn wanted to grow her business, but didn’t know where she could get the extra push she needed.

Enter Oakland County’s Venture Forward program, a 10-week series of training sessions offered by the Oakland County Business Center. It helps existing entrepreneurs grow their businesses by developing sound business practices and action plans.

Hearn completed the program and thought the experience invaluable to the continued success of Michaelene’s Gourmet Granola.

“Even after 25 years of business, I was amazed by how much I didn’t know,” she says. “It takes a whole lot more to make a successful business than just having something that tastes good. … I can’t recommend (Venture Forward) highly enough.”

But while Michaelene’s Gourmet Granola has indeed grown with local distribution and an Internet presence, Hearn prefers another definition of a successful business.

“I’m not like a lot of business owners in that I have never aspired to be the biggest,” she says. “The success of my business is the joy of knowing that what we do, we do well. And we bring good food to people.

“Success is knowing that what I sell helps keep people healthy.”

Michaelene’s Gourmet Granola is located at 7415 Deer Forest Court in Clarkston. For more information call 248-625-0156 or visit online at www.gourmetgranola.com.