For Michelle Pusateri, granola was something that was first born of necessity before it grew into a bona fide business. A former pastry chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in St. Helena and who has worked at a number of San Francisco institutions (Bi-Rite, Fairmont Hotel, The Four Seasons, Nopa), Michelle first started making granola while she was working at Nopalito in San Francisco as the executive pastry chef. For Michelle, granola was the the thing that gave her the energy she needed to make it through a day standing on her feet. When she started giving it away to friends and family, her boyfriend suggested she sell it instead.
Then one day she was joking with one of the buyers at Faletti Foods, a specialty grocery store housed in the same building as Nopalito, and she brought up the possibility of selling her granola at the store—the rest is history, as they say.
Before creating Nana Joe’s, Michelle had a long history of working in the food industry and of creative pursuits. A native of the Dallas area, Michelle started in food service at 15 waitressing at a mall and then working at a chocolate shop and café. When she finished high school, she moved to Santa Fe, where she did dual degrees in art (with concentrations in painting and photography) and creative writing at the University of New Mexico.
Finding a traditional office job after school didn’t really work for Michelle, she said. “I tried to work in offices and that didn’t work—I can’t sit still.” After being away from home for a while, she also found that a move back home to Texas no longer seemed to fit her either. “Texas wasn’t for me – I couldn’t find my place,” she said.
When she hit 30 she decided to go to culinary school. “I loved baking. I loved the science behind it. There’s something really cool about creating bread or creating a recipe that actually work—because half the time they don’t!”
She enrolled in a nine-month program at the CIA in St. Helena, working full-time at a pizza place while she was in school. As part of the program, she had the privilege of doing a three-month apprenticeship under Stephen Durfee, who was the pastry chef at the French Laundry at the time.
“I loved every minute of it,” Michelle said.
After culinary school, Michelle moved back to Texas again and became an executive pastry chef in the Dallas area. She also started a small side business making desserts for restaurants with under 50 seats. Despite her ambitious start, she acknowledges now that she took on more than she was ready for at the time. “At that point, I wasn’t ready to own my own business,” she said. “I didn’t have enough experience.”
Eventually she moved back to the San Francisco area. Not realizing what a tough housing market it can be here, it took two months of couch surfing for Michelle to find a place to live. Finding a pastry job proved even tougher. Her first job was waitressing at Chow on Church, then she got a front of house job at Nopa when it opened. Despite having run her own pastry kitchen in Dallas, the level of competition for jobs in San Francisco was a whole other ball of dough.
“I was worried about getting a job in the city. It was scary. Every time I tried out for a job, I was too inexperienced.”
In Dallas she’d been doing her own thing rather than learning from other, more experienced pastry chefs. In San Francisco, they expected her to have more experience. Eventually she got a baking job at Bi-Rite making cookies and baked goods for the Creamery when it opened. Her culinary career finally really kicked off when a friend of hers from the CIA got the executive pastry job and the Fairmont Hotel and offered her a job. From there she did stints at the Four Seasons, Magnolia Gastropub, and then back at Nopa working in pastry with Amy Brown. After some time at Nopa, she was offered the executive pastry job at Nopalito, where she formed relationships with the workers next door at Faletti’s, bringing them Nopalito’s famous popsicles to try out, which eventually led to that fateful conversation about selling her granola on their shelves.
Then just as Michelle started the business, her father was diagnosed with brain cancer. Food had always played an important part in the family, Michelle said. Her father, in particular, was extremely passionate about food. Despite his illness, Michelle’s father encouraged her to pursue the granola business, and she began shuttling back and forth between San Francisco and Texas to spend time with him, making granola whenever she was in San Francisco for a few days. Over the course one seven week period, she said, she came back to California every couple of weeks to deliver and make granola to keep up with her orders before her father passed.
After she returned, she “threw herself” into the business, she said. Two years later, Michelle has been able to grow the business to include six farmer’s markets and a number of local stores and restaurants. The success she’s had even necessitated that she build out her out commercial kitchen in Dogpatch, which she’s been in since July of this year.
Making a healthy product is one thing that Michelle is both proud of and thinks is important. All of her products are gluten-free and are low in sugars–she only uses maple syrup as a sweetener. In addition to making breakfast granolas, she also makes hearty granola bars (that include almond butter, Four Barrel Coffee and TCHO cacao nibs) and clusters. She’s also started collaborating with local chefs to create a series of special, limited-edition Chef’s Blend granolas, using their palates. Each run is only 250 bags and only sells until they run out.
These collaborations and the community she’s found among other artisans and chefs in the Bay Area have been among the greatest rewards of having her own business, she said. She’s been able to find a very supportive network of “really cool” people in the food industry here. Michelle was also recently honored by being asked to judge the Good Food Awards, which she really enjoyed getting to do.
“It’s important to build a community around you.”
What drew you to food?
Since I was a kid, five or six years old, I’ve loved cooking in the kitchen with my mom and dad. I always loved being in the kitchen.
I wanted something that was more local and not packed with a lot of sugar or fillers.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
The chefs, definitely from the chefs. And from my dad’s side of the family. My dad loved to cook and had a huge passion around food, more than I’ve ever known anybody to have. We’re all like, ‘live to eat’ [in my family]. I live to eat. I love trying different things. I still love it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
The best piece of advice I got was keep it minimal, stick to a core value and don’t compromise who you are and your values for making money or for anything else. I think that’s big.
The best piece of advice I can give is make it a community. It’s not a competition. Owning your own business is hard, and sure someone will come along and want to outsell you, but it’s important to build a community around you. It’s very important to create that structure around you. Yeah, someone’s going to sell more than you, but it’s about creating a community where people grow and have a viable business.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Building out the kitchen. I think you can get around the rejections of people not wanting to buy your product because they think it’s too expensive. But they have to understand these ingredients are first touch. First touch on syrup, walnuts, all of the dried fruit—we are the first touch. That’s important. That’s what I’m talking about with a sense of community. I’m not willing to change it because it’s not what I’d want to eat…you have to stick to your values, that’s super important.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Getting to know some really cool people. The networking is phenomenal. I love getting to know all the people, getting to judge at the Good Food Awards, knowing that I’m giving people a good product to start the morning with. It’s healthy, it’s made by hand, not machines. I think that’s pretty phenomenal.
The Chef’s Blend—I like that collaboration. I was sitting there thinking it would be cool if I collaborated with some chefs to make a blend, use their palate. I think I was starting to get a bit bored…I went and talked to Laurence [Jossel] about it, the chef at Nopa. We do a 250-bag run with each person.
We’ve done three so far and are about to release a fourth one. The first was with Laurence from Nopa. It had Nopalito spiced almond clusters, pistachios, tart cherries, apricots and the almond clusters studded [were] with TCHO chocolate. It was sweet. It was decadent.
The second was with Brett Cooper from Outerlands. Dried mandarin, fennel seeds, cacao nibs, ginger, ground coriander and dried persimmons.
Then there was Richie Nakano from Hapa Ramen. Seaweed, puffed rice, black sesame seeds, cherries and toasted soy flour.
The latest one is with Wise Sons Deli—Evan [Bloom] and Leo [Beckerman]. Apricots, cinnamon, pecans, walnuts, chocolate, lots of cinnamon. Think like rugelach or babka. Kinda like a babka goo or a rugelach/babka mixture.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Amy Brown [Marla Bakery], for one. I think she’s phenomenal. That woman can make the best bread ever. She’s a great pastry chef. She has an exceptional palate.
I love Claire [Keane] from Claire’s Squares. I think she’s a pretty amazing lady. Dafna [Kory] from INNA Jam—her jams and shrubs are phenomenal. Emmy [Moore] from Emmy’s Pickles. And she’s got a good head on her shoulders and good business sense. Megan Costell from Easton Malloy—they make all of the peppermint brittle for Williams Sonoma. She’s cool, I like that woman a lot. Jeff Hanak from Nopa—he has helped me more than probably anyone else has. He took the time when nobody has it to help me set up an inventory system. I know I’m probably forgetting someone. Luke [Chappell] from Luke’s Local. The guys from Good Eggs. Sadie [Scheffer] from Bread Srsly—she knows what she wants, and she’s going after it.
Karen [Heisler] and Krystin [Rubin] from Mission Pie—they do so much for the community. They have a great program where they bring in high school kids to work.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
Oh, man, definitely bread! I wouldn’t care if I couldn’t eat it anymore if I got rashes and hives, etc. [Michelle is gluten intolerant.] I’d probably have Josey Baker’s Bread—his bread definitely. With almond butter. No, I’d have his bread, and I would have my dad’s short ribs and eggplant caponata. That’s my ideal last meal.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Nana Joe’s Granola
All photos courtesy of Michelle Pusateri/Nana Joe’s Granola and Katie Newburn Photography.