BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Wegmans shoppers are acutely aware of the locally made products that can be found on the store's shelves.
Businesses such as Southern Tier Brewing Company and Borsari Food Company, both based in Lakewood, got their foot in the door with the supermarket chain locally and have since seen their products made available in stores across the Northeast. The store's commitment to supporting small businesses is part of what has made it so endearing to customers and communities over the years.
But it isn't just Jamestown's Wegmans Store 88 that has served as a jumping-off point for companies trying to break into the business. For the Virgilio family of Bethlehem, Pa., owners of The Granola Factory, it was their local Wegmans that was the first to give them a shot. Their product eventually became available in the Nature's Market sections of more than a dozen Wegmans stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey - and now, Store 88 in Jamestown has picked it up, allowing their granola to make an expanse westward.
Calvin Virgilio of The Granola Factory helps me pour a mixing bowl full of granola onto a baking sheet in the company’s kitchen in Bethlehem, Pa. After being made available in 17 Wegmans stores in central and eastern Pennsylvania, as well as New Jersey, The Granola Factory’s product was recently noticed and picked up by the chain’s Store 88 in Jamestown.
Photos by Carrie Emke
''Jamestown actually contacted us - they found out about us and it's selling well up there despite the distance,'' said 24-year-old Calvin Virgilio, who helps manage the business operated by his parents, Suzanne and Robert. ''They're really great with smaller businesses trying to get out there. They're so good about what they do, as far as bringing in new and unique products.''
Calvin had sent me a sample of the company's granola - cherry almond with quinoa - and I had completely ignored the recommended serving size and downed the whole bag in one sitting. After several phone and email conversations in which I told him what I do and he explained The Granola Factory's operations, we knew there was only one appropriate way to share with Jamestown the story of how the product makes it from Bethlehem, Pa., to Fairmount Avenue in Jamestown: ''Dave Does'' was taking a road trip.
BREAKING INTO GRANOLA
After a nearly seven-hour journey across the Southern Tier Expressway and down the eastern border of Pennsylvania, we arrived in downtown Bethlehem.
(Sidebar: As much as I like to drive, the Southern Tier Expressway isn't the most scenic route in the world. And being on a tight schedule, we only stopped for one bathroom break. I'm not used to that level of urgency.)
Robert and Suzanne are the owners of the historic Bethlehem Inn Bed and Breakfast, which they have operated since 1988. Suzanne, who has been a teacher for 33 years and is currently a home economics teacher at nearby Easton High School, wanted to have a trademark item to serve for breakfast to the inn's guests and started baking her own granola.
The granola was a hit. After enough guests had told her she should bag it and sell it, she took the advice to heart.
''We put in a crude kitchen in our basement that fit the criteria (to sell for retail) and we started baking in there,'' she said. ''But we outgrew the basement - we didn't have enough space to be baking the volume we were receiving orders for.''
So it wasn't a basement where I would be making granola. Rather, it was a storefront on a nearby side street. The Granola Factory moved into its new residence, a combination restaurant and kitchen, in 2006. Though the restaurant is only open two days a week, it offers an ever-changing menu of gourmet-prepared baked goods and seasonal favorites that keep customers coming back for more.
Calvin got us started back in the kitchen by bringing out two bags of pre-made mixtures of the granola's dry ingredients: oats, wheat bran, salt and spices. He then placed a humongous bag of pecans on the counter and we got to work on creating a batch of the company's all-natural honey pecan variety of granola.
Each bag of mix required five cups of pecans. After scooping the pecans onto a block, Calvin showed me the proper technique for chopping the pecans quickly and efficiently - leaving them the perfect size to be dumped into the mixture for eventual inclusion in the bags of granola.
I scooped out the second five cups of pecans and attempted to follow Calvin's lead. I did a fair job, but it's safe to say that some lucky granola buyer is going to find a whole pecan or two in his or her bag. There's no prize for that. Just chew carefully.
After pouring our pecans into the pre-made mix, we turned our attention to the wet ingredients. Butter is melted and honey is heated, and then the two liquids are emulsified. It's a sticky and potentially messy process, but it makes for a delicious result. This time, Suzanne handled the first batch and I took care of the second - shockingly, not spilling more than a drop.
The Virgilios said that butter is used instead of canola oil for many reasons, but one of the most important is that it is natural.
''Our philosophy is to try to use everything as close to natural as possible, not only with the granola, but also with our bakery items,'' Suzanne said.
We carefully poured dry mix ... then wet mix ... then more dry mix ... then the rest of the wet mix into a large mixer. Calvin told me that more than 300 pounds of granola each day is mixed within that same mixer. Standing closely over the machine so that the small amount of splatter didn't go all over the room, I switched it on and allowed it to do its thing for about seven seconds. My apron only ended up with a few stray pieces of honey-covered oats on it.
The next step proved to be one of the more difficult for me - as it involves strength. The heavy bowl must be lifted from the mixer and tipped up into the air as its contents are scooped onto large baking sheets. (The two bowls we mixed filled five sheets.)
Regular readers of this column know this is my darkest moment: when the time comes to lift something and hold it steady for longer than a second. Calvin told me that the women who work in the kitchen during the week complete eight full baking cycles a day, which means they complete this task 16 times a shift. Just once was going to kill me, I knew.
After Calvin had completed the first scooping on his own, I attempted the second. It was a nightmare. I somehow forgot to ask how much the bowl weighed, but I will estimate it weighed 700 pounds. Seeing me struggle as I tried to reach the spatula in and scoop the granola out, Calvin swooped in and gave a helping hand. It was much appreciated.
Into the oven the granola went, and I took the opportunity to rub my sore arms.
FINISHING THE BATCH
During a true shift at The Granola Factory, Calvin said, the last batch's bags would be cooled, filled, sealed and labeled while the next batch was baking.
During my shift, however, while we were waiting for the batch to bake we sampled one of the bakery's local favorites - a Moravian sugar cake. Calvin has become an expert at making the cakes, his mother said, and they are sold around town.
As we were enjoying the sticky goodness of the potato-based, brown sugar-glazed delicacy, the timer went off and the granola needed to come out of the oven for a flipping. The five sheets were placed on the counter very close to each other - so that if granola were inadvertently flipped off one sheet, it would land on another, Calvin said. I still managed to flip quite a bit completely off the grid. Calvin said that it was OK. I'm sure he grumbled about it later.
The granola returned to the oven, each sheet placed on a different rack than before, and the process was repeated once more. After the third baking, baking was complete and the granola was rolled to a position in front of a huge fan to cool.
I was then shown how the bagging process works. With lack of an assembly line to do such work, a small business such as The Granola Factory much do things a little more old-fashioned. Each bag of granola is filled, weighed and labeled individually. The employees who do this on a daily basis have become very proficient at this process, Calvin said, and can practically hit the proper weight measurement instinctively. I had to be very careful to do it properly. Slow and steady.
I'm glad I wasn't being timed. I'm also glad he didn't make me do the whole batch, or else I might still be in Bethlehem.
After the bag has been filled, it is heat-sealed and the sticker label is applied. Calvin showed me the proper way to press it onto the bag to avoid leaving crinkles in the sticker. My stickers still had crinkles. I'm not a quick learner when it comes to things like that.
Calvin told me his dad threatens to charge employees 25 cents for every label that comes out crinkled. Good thing I never signed a contract.
LOOKING TO GROW
The next morning at breakfast - a delicious meal that, of course, featured granola as its centerpiece - Robert chatted with us and other guests at the Bed and Breakfast about the company and how easy Wegmans has made it for them to get it out across the chain.
Most notably, he said, he was concerned about how he would be able to transport his product to far-away stores without the budget to afford - not to mention the amount of product to justify - transportation. When Wegmans told him he could simply FedEx his granola directly to stores, as he would do to any other customer who orders from his website, he said he knew they had the right idea. They wanted to do what it takes to get a quality, natural product into as many stores as they can - cutting out overhead in the process.
And while Jamestown is the only store outside of central and eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey that has picked up The Granola Factory's products as of yet, the company is actively looking to grow and expand its place in the market.
After the hospitality they showed me, I just hope the few whole pecans discovered in bags with crinkled labels don't detract from that mission in any way.