Crapola, says Brian Strom, “is a joke that we took a little bit too far.”
How far? Far enough to reach the shelves of Kowalski’s, Lunds, Byerly’s and more than 60 other stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Not bad for a husband-and-wife team who live off the grid near Ely and had limited experience with food beyond eating it.
Crapola — yes, that’s really the name — is a cranberry-apple granola. I’ve tried it, and it’s delicious. My wife loved it, too, after an initial hesitation caused by the name.
It was wordplay that led Brian and Andrea Strom into the cereal business. One of them thought it would be funny to give the name Crapola to cranberry-apple granola. That led to making some.
In their wood-fired cookstove, they baked up a bunch of different recipes and had a tasting party for friends and family. Their granola was so well-received that they decided to sell it at Ely’s annual Blueberry Festival.
It was a hit at the festival, and people told the Stroms they should try to get it into Twin Cities grocery stores. That was in 2007. But Brian Strom, a painter, and his wife, a veterinary worker, had no business plan and no idea what they were getting themselves into.
“We were full of optimism and naivete about the business world,” Brian says. “Not knowing how much work it would be, and how much money we wouldn’t make, we went ahead with it.”
Things moved quickly at first. Brian sent an email to Kowalski’s. The store asked for some samples, and it was soon on the shelves.
That’s not the usual model for getting a new product into grocery stores. The grocery business is fiercely competitive and often charges up-front fees of $50,000 to $100,000 before putting a new product on the shelf.
Getting into other stores has been tougher. To be considered by Lunds and Byerly’s, they had to sign on with a distributor. The distributor rejected Crapola at first but later accepted it. That connection has gotten them not only into Lunds and Byerly’s, but into other stores as well.
Meanwhile, they had to design labels, buy packaging equipment, rent a bakery in Ely and learn all about shipping, invoicing and other necessities of running a business. They occasionally hire some part-time seasonal helpers as demand requires, but for the most part, the two of them do everything themselves.
Crapola isn’t as sweet as most packaged granolas. It’s flavored with nothing but honey and real maple syrup. They’ve recently introduced their first product extensions: Crapola No. 2, a cranberry-orange version that’s nut-free and gluten-free; and a patriotic Red, White and Blueberry Granola, “for constitutional support.”
Brian says a logical next step would be granola bars, but that introduces a whole new level of production challenges that they’re not quite ready for yet.
Sales have grown steadily, from $5,000 in their first year to more than $200,000 last year. Sales are up more than 10 percent so far this year, with the holiday season still in play. They see a sales spike every year at this time, Brian says, because people think a bag of Crapola makes a funny stocking-stuffer.
Though happy for the sales, “I’m kind of conflicted that people see it as a novelty,” he says. “We’re proud of it; it’s a high-quality product.
“People are going to laugh once, but if they buy it again, then they must like it.”