The New England Natural Bakers Story
You may likely know us because of our products: New England Naturals organic and all natural granola cereals and trail mixes. Perhaps you are a Private Label Buyer, arranging to purchase pouch granola cereal with a Supermarket or other Brand name package to be available to consumers through a multitude of retail outlets. Whether you are part of the natural food community, or a valuable and curious consumer wanting to know more about New England Natural Bakers, we have a colorful story that we are proud to share.
In the spring of 1977, arising from a conversation with co-op members and managers at the popular Yellow Sun Food Co-op in Amherst, Mass, a decision was made to fill the need for a locally produced granola. The attributes of passion and motivation were present and several resources that allowed for a viable business were identified. Good thing we were not aware of what we did not know and thank goodness for the presence of “we can do that!” Being in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, with its abundance of colleges and “alternative” health related business, we knew that plenty of outlets existed for selling natural healthy food.
John Broucek: The Beginning of New England Natural Bakers.
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I was 25 years of age and had spent the previous 5 years of my life traveling for extended periods of time, as well as living in the country gaining skills through with what was known then as “homesteading communities.” I was ready to create my own reality utilizing newly found confidence with a vision to be in “clean” business that promoted environmental and social well being. I was quite comfortable with food in general, enjoying both gardening and creative cooking and in addition to the resources identified, there was partnership-one of the former co-op managers shared this vision with me. So together we bravely plunged ahead with minimal business background and experience.
Literature from Good Morning New England Granola Company, circa 1977, "The name has changed but the message remains the same."
Good Morning New England Granola Co.
After a few hours of planning for the purchase of ingredients and the kitchen to use, we stepped into an “all-night session” to bake granola and the Good Morning New England Granola Co. was born. That night we made 150lbs or so of Deluxe Fruit and Nut Granola, which was honey, sweetened (I was a bee-keeper) and chock full of a variety of fruits and nuts that could be grown in New England. Our customers were happy. We continued to polish our simple business practices and the demand grew. One of our first “big-decisions” was to rent time and space in a Pizza delivery kitchen. An opportunity presented itself when a business run by the people who first gave me a job when I moved to the area in 1974 happily rented us daytime use of their facility and all it’s amenities so that they would have hot ovens upon opening at 5 in the evening. The price was $1.00 per hour! This low overhead sowed the seeds both for reasonable prices to our customers, as well as the practice of fair wages to all workers and always paid each week.
Life at Good Morning New England Granola Company, From left to right, John Broucek, owner founder of New England Natural Bakers seems to get approval of one of his early granolas from none other than hjis mom; employee checks on tray in the pizza oven (the first home of GMNEG was a Pizza Parlor), "Traying Granola," The old Good Morning New England Granola sign still exists in the company archives.
During the next 2 years we developed additional flavors of granola cereals as well as various snack products and delivered them via my personal van to several dozen retail outlets and colleges in the valley. The original partner left to start new endeavors and other partners, on with finance and bookkeeping expertise joined our growing business. Towards the end of 1978 Llama, Toucan and Crow, a small distributor of natural products from Brattleboro, VT, contacted us. This business was the predecessor of Stow Mills, which then merged with Cornucopia Distributors, eventually becoming UNFI, which is now the largest natural products distributor in America.
Another hallmark decision was upon us-should we accept the potential of widespread distribution and focus on production or maintain the casual delivery to local markets and limit our growth? We decided to have the best of both worlds and lowered our price to Llama Toucan and Crow (to protect the price to retailers) and continued to deliver to existing clients while focusing more on production. Along with greater sophistication of Sales and Marketing strategies, we started to obtain our own equipment, one piece at a time, now using the back room of the Pizza Shop while still having access to the equipment in front. As we expanded our business horizons I’m amazed and very grateful at how many people (bankers, vendors, college professors, etc.) contributed their advice and mentoring. Together with our unfaltering passion, we “rode the crest of the health food wave” learning as we grew and most importantly, picking ourselves back up every time we stumbled.
Prior Locations, left to right, NENB shared a space in S. Amherst with a martial arts studio; View of Whately, Ma. loading dock; Whately another view, it was a popcorn factory before we moved there.
By 1980, the year we incorporated and moved to our very own 2000 square foot facility, we were selling to several New England distributors, including Western Mass Food Co-ops, Associated Buyers, New England Organic Produce Co., and Hudson Valley Food Co-ops. We were about to enter the New Jersey and NYC markets. Right before the move, a man with a vision to create a strong service focused natural products distributorship contacted me. I was impressed by his relationship strategy to personally visit all the manufactures in New England. He succeeded in creating Cornucopia, which quickly became a dominant regional player. Since 1980, we have been in 3 different locations, always expanding within that location before moving to a larger facility that met our needs. Today, with 40 employees, we are once again in need of additional space, currently utilizing trailers at non-active dock bays for storage while we secure additional real estate.
Growing a manufacturing business from the ground up, without prior experience or raised capital was both an adventure and a challenge. We knew we were a “grass-roots” business and were quite satisfied to have balanced personal and business lives while we slowly grew. From our perspective, the infrastructure and systems needed for a mature manufacturing business were quite daunting, thus the attitude and practice of “we’ll learn as we go, and keep going as long as it’s satisfying” worked just fine. It also helped tremendously that we were really willing to keep picking ourselves up every time we fell, relentlessly moving forward. At times the fall left a noticeable bruise!
From Bulk Foods to Packaged Products
The transition from being a "bulk" foods company to selling packaged products was not easy. Being part of the original 70’s movement to be ecologically sensitive, it was easy to dislike packaging and it’s representation of non-renewable waste stream, especially given we were very familiar with food purchasing in bulk belonging to Food co-ops. The financial investment to design and purchase packaging materials based upon realistic market research and sales projections was also very new to us. Yet we suspected that volume from more widespread distribution and from brand recognition was destined to be a viable strategy. Our first effort was two snack trail mixes in single serving size bags: Happy Trails Mix and Carob Chip Crunch. The physical size of the display case ended up being too big for many check-out counters and shelves, and I fell prey to overbuying the quantity of displays because of the savings per unit cost. With an eventual loss to do low sales, we weathered our first "write-off" by continuing to do well with the bulk sales, and learned that market place research with good sales projections were absolutely necessary.
Packaging Evolution, left to right, NENB Save the Forest mixes late 1980's; the "Good Morning Line," circa 1993, the first itteration of "New England Naturals"
Over the years all facets of our infrastructure evolved and matured. For instance, production and packaging equipment selection grew from a few hours of consideration per project of hardly suitable used equipment to sophisticated planning prior to purchasing based upon a variety of analysis, including return on investment, capacity and bottleneck/throughput, and impact on personnel with Safety, training and operational skill concerns. Machinery must meet additional needs like quick product changeovers as well as sanitary design and contribution to quality and food safety practices. Does the equipment manufacturer readily stock parts, have a pro-active tech support system, and supply necessary information that fits within our pro-active and preventative maintenance program? The details to consider and co-ordinate while moving any project forward according to schedule is one component of effective management.
Growing a Successful Business with Principles of Sustainability
Product growth and sales planning grew from scribbled “wish and hope” plans to development of a thorough understanding of all the needs in the chain of delivery-distributor, broker, retailer or institution, and consumer. Relationship development and the art of great listening coupled with asking the right questions at the perfect time produce very favorable results. We’ve learned that our products have as much value as our clients perceive they do. Advertising, social media, promotion, indeed the whole world of marketing, is usually a challenge for smaller business. There is a lot work to building a marketing strategy based upon tradition components: Product, Packaging, Positioning. A great deal of systematic planning occurs to accomplish this from a thorough understanding of the supply and delivery chain including made-to-order/made-to-stock production planning, inventory turns, and consistent weekly production for our personnel. Again, we’ve come a long way from the scrambling to order ingredients each time large orders for products came in to the sustainable practices of today built upon sound policies.
Product Quality and Food Safety
Starting in the 80's and continuing ever since we have evolved the principles and practices of both workplace safety and consistent quality product / food safety. These two facets must always be the context in which productivity and efficiency are realized, and are best developed and sustained by top-down managerial support. While effective training programs and personnel skill and competencies are very important –overall company culture and attitude also play an important role – more on that later.
Very early on in our packaging career- a few years after the trail mix fiasco –we had landed our first Private Label supermarket chain for production and packaging of granolas, muesli’s and trail mixes. The package was a “pillow-pack” (like a potato chip bag) produced on our newly purchased (but used) machine with integrated scales, automatic labeling and creation of a bag from roll-stock film. So much more efficient then foot pedal operated sealing machines! With that rather substantial investment it somehow did not seem unreasonable to postpone the purchase of a metal detector – besides, we were purchasing from reliable suppliers… I remember the week quite vividly, first one call, and then another from the buyer and his boss questioning our systems in light of the recall they were about to implement with multiple metal findings by consumers. We eventually discovered that a vendor of tropical dried fruit sold us a shipment contaminated with large staples, however the issue was our immediate credibility, and the clients twenty-some stores with soon to be empty shelves for a substantial part of their “packaged-bulk sections. It was touch and go for a while to manage and literally save the relationship. In the end, our honesty and complete accepting of the problem coupled with the ability to quickly put together a correction plan not only salvaged the relationship, but also allowed us to continue our successful growth with them. How did we handle it? Within a matter of 4 days we purchased a metal detector and flew a small crew to each of their warehouses and tested all products and restocked the shelves. Besides avoiding the expensive recall, we now had a metal detector that was promptly installed on the packaging machine! That incident initiated a much more comprehensive internal review and upgrade of all our quality systems.
Learning As We Grew
Management systems must evolve to include extensive planning for projects and initiatives that include all the facets that are key to their success –integrating machinery, process, materials and people. The most financially devastating event in NENB’s history occurred in 2004-05 when a 2nd-division was formed at a separate location, the building we had moved out of in 2002. I hired a food industry manager with significant operational experience in manufacturing flaked and crisp cereals. We were already buying these value added ingredients for use in NENB products, and there was a marketplace opportunity to sell product utilizing grains other then corn and rice that were also certified organic. The feasibility study supported the size and scale we planned to set up, and there were obvious efficiencies in using our existing administrative and operational systems. As the installation of equipment and process systems were being implemented, a multitude of problems surfaced that indicated our planning was falling short of the high level of accuracy needed for a successful venture. The tipping point event occurred right before product launch when a serious health problem sent the manager to hospital without ability to even talk with us. After several very stressful months of trying to salvage the endeavor, I finally accepted the one-half million-dollar loss.
Maintaining Our Values And Vision
Transitioning from the risk laden entrepreneurial stage to sustainable management and ongoing market success has always been a challenging process for any business. There are many best practices for any company, and for NENB they go well beyond the traditional areas of operations, sales, finance, maintenance, warehouse, information technologies, etc. Various policies and procedures –some typically linked with HR – really are an extension of my values and vision of how to run NENB. Over the decades I’ve continually learned how to create a “family” of employees as well as how to market products that resonate authenticity of purpose for the consumers purchasing those products.
Social Justice Initiatives
During the 80’s we developed - first a bulk granola, then a line of packaged products – branded as “Save the Forest”. The initiative included the Fair Trade practice of purchasing ingredients as directly as possible from sources in the Amazon region (providing the growers/harvesters with greater income compared to using “middle” people) and also partnering with social justice and environmental sustainability groups by donating 10% of the profits to people and causes in South America. We formed a committee of employees to decide which organizations would receive our donations. Our customers loved the product and appreciated the “cause-related” feature – rewarding us with substantial sales. Save the Forest Nut bulk granola was consistently rated within the top 5 selling granolas on the east coast for many years.
It's All About The Employees
Having employees who care about what they do and are actively engaged is quite a different reality compared to the all to frequent situation of ongoing conflict and tension between ownership/management and general work force. Creating a workplace that provides meaning and is even fun for all workers not only is possible, but also can often contribute to the financial success. At NENB, it starts with providing an organized business infrastructure with an ever-improving vibrant culture that displays genuine care for the welfare of all employees. Leaders and Managers must display their care, and all employees are hired for not just their skills, but with attention to how they resonate with our Values and our Culture. We lead with four prominent values including examples of what these values look like through behaviors. The Values are: Trust, Integrity, Excellence, and Sustainability – the TIES that bind us together. The manifestation of these values through everyday activity provides the foundation for a culture that thrives on authenticity, consideration, fairness, respect, and optimism. To create and sustain a vibrant and successful team you need more then the right technical skills – you need to live within the reality that not only is everybody’s job important, but who they are as human beings is important!
During 2002, in preparation to move to our current location we set up an elaborate planning process. Our Customer Service and Order Fulfillment principles dictated that we would do all that was possible to stay within the “down-time” that was communicated to our customers. We formed committees –involving all employees- that researched and wrote implementation plans for improved quality, safety and efficiency at the new plant as well as mapping out the actual move and installation complete with various contingency plans. We were wildly successful –surprising many clients with how soon we were back “on line” with the added benefit that all employees enjoyed the fact that they directly contributed to the success. Management must provide a workable structure and the right attitude in which in which employee engagement can happen – and then it will. Recently, the process of employees contributing to the creation of who and what we are happened again during an 8-month process of Strategic Planning. A group of 17 employees, from all departments at NENB, explored and decided upon the practical Mission component for our Strategic Plan for the next 5 years. The feeling of individual and team empowerment was very noticeable at the end of that session.
Leadership At NENB
Leadership’s responsibility to provide appropriate context and structure extends into the relationship and interpersonal aspects of culture –and at time is quite challenging. Most Americans will always remember what happened and how they felt on Sept. 11th 2001. Our employees expressed growing shock and grief as planes first crashed into the twin towers and then as the buildings collapsed causing such destruction and massive loss of life. I was already dealing with a "big" business issue that week, however, gratefully, my inner guidance served the organization well by having me call a meeting of employees on the 12th –for the simple purpose of having a forum for shared expression. What emerged out of that very healthy session of shared feelings was the empowering suggestion that we act! We decided right then and there to quickly produce several thousand pounds of “Freedom Trail Mix” snack packages to ship within days to support the volunteers at Ground Zero. We closed that meeting feeling relief from talking about our pain, and with a renewed sense of empowerment by taking action to help.
For the last 15 years we have been improving organizational leadership at NENB, including situational leadership employed anytime by anybody within the context of our hierarchical authority. The desire and ability to respond for the greater good will manifest in a supportive and trusting culture. Mahatma Gandhi spoke of Servant Leadership, the responsibility of leaders to act in service for the whole with strong attentiveness to the intrinsic needs of all – this speaks to what we are creating at NENB. For many years now, we’ve utilized the services of an Organizational Consultant –in conjunction with HR and my involvement –who conducts trainings/workshops that improve communication, interpersonal relationship skills and team building.
People intrinsically know what is fair, what respect looks and feels like. Employees recognize and are attracted to organizations that manifest integrity and provide opportunities for meaningful participation that allows for authenticity, connection and fun. The rewards are evident through a richer existence for individuals, and an environment that promotes self-motivation. Leadership and Management set the stage for financial and cultural success, charting a course where both enhance each other. When you have clear goals to reach, metrics to measure those goals, and individual and team accountability; when you have open and clear communication, the tools to promote improvement with developing trust between the participants – and you add authentic appreciation and recognition –then you have an thriving, engaged and satisfied organization.
NENB's future looks as colorful and bright as its past as we travel towards our envisioned future directed by our Purpose Statement: Through our guiding Values of Trust, Integrity, Excellence, and Sustainability NENB crafts products and nurtures conscious relationships that enhance the quality of life.
Next: Read about who we are!