SHIRLEY — What started as a small table at the Carlisle farmers’ market in 2007 has now evolved into a thriving business.
Golden Girl Granola was the first entrepreneurial ambition of founder Deborah O’Kelley and the mindset was never to create a massive company. Granola was also not the original product O’Kelley was bringing to market — it was doughnuts.
However, when her daughter Jacquie proposed making something with a longer shelf life, O’Kelley was interested.
“We had never made granola before, we didn’t even used to eat granola before. So (Jacquie) made the first six recipes and we brought them in and people liked it,” O’Kelley said.
When it first gained acclimation, the company’s products were in about 15 Whole Foods Market locations and the local grocery chain Donelan’s. They were just getting into a few select Hannaford locations.
Today, the number of Whole Foods the company’s products can be purchased in has doubled. They are also in Stop and Shop, Hannaford, Donelan’s and many smaller, local retailers.
This year the company added what may be its most recognizable client in the Red Sox, who wanted to offer the company’s products to its players.
When the pandemic first hit, the company noticed a shift in its business, but it also found a way to survive and keep growing. Terry O’Kelley estimates the company is growing at about 20% per year.
A main driver of sales for Golden Girl was offices wanting to order snacks for their employees. When many companies pivoted to working from home, it was an opportunity to grow in other areas, like grocery sales.
“Right in the very beginning, you couldn’t get detergent, you couldn’t get flour, people were staying at home and baking and cooking,” Terry O’Kelley said. “So the grocery stores began to order more than they ever had before.”
It was also an opportunity to focus on online sales direct to consumers, which the company maintains.
“There were a lot of online people who were afraid to go to grocery stores. So that business really took off dramatically and in order to help that we covered shipping. We still do,” Terry O’Kelley said.
Covering shipping and not raising prices during the height of the pandemic was a nod to consumers. The company recognized many people were out of work and it didn’t feel fair to increase costs for them.
As the company grows its retail operations, the O’Kelleys are adamant that they cannot undercut the smaller retailers who helped them grow their business.
Golden Girl still operates out of Phoenix Park Business Center, a rope factory in the 1800s. The company moved to its current home around 2012 and despite its growth, it found ways to efficiently maximize the space and the small staff size.
Bags are filled by newly acquired weigh-fill machines made from a company in Vermont; the company’s granola bars are cut by a custom-built machine from a manufacturer in Westford.
When the company first moved to Phoenix Park, it relied on a single rack oven. Now it’s able to put two racks in an oven. The granola is still double-baked, which Terry O’Kelley said brings out the best flavor.
“If you compare a slice of bread to a piece of toast there’s more flavor in the toast simply because it’s been cooked a little more. So same thing with the coconut and the almonds,” Terry O’Kelley said.
Deborah O’Kelley added: “If you’re doing it in a machine and you have a lot, you’re just tumbling it around and you’re just not getting this (product) — it’s not baked with the same care.”
As granola becomes a more popular item, the O’Kelleys said they are aware of the criticism saying the product in general isn’t “as healthy as it used to be.”
For the O’Kelleys, striking a balance between taste and health comes down to the double-baking process and using natural ingredients. The company’s products are sweetened with maple syrup and honey — oftentimes sourced right in New England. When the company uses canola oil, it’s getting it from nearby Catania Oils in Ayer.
Golden Girl’s ingredient choices also help to build trust with the consumer. The product is made the same way one would make it at home.
“We just wanted to use ingredients that you would use at home. I have a comfort level with that and I think a lot of people do, too — just stuff that you would bake with. It’s a fresh-baked good, and it’s OK, you don’t have time or expertise,” Deborah O’Kelley said.
People notice a difference when they are in a store hosting a product demonstration. Customers will stop by their table, try a sample, grab the bag and don’t find high sugar or salt content when they turn to the nutrition information on the back, Terry O’Kelley said
“People are shocked to see how low it is,” Terry O’Kelley said.
Although the company has been around for a few years now, many people still ask if the name is an homage to the 1980s TV show “The Golden Girls” starring Betty White, among others.
Instead the name is a direct reference to the O’Kelleys’ daughter Jacquie, who had blonde hair, Terry O’Kelley explained.
“And she liked Pippi Longstocking when she was a kid … so she sort of fashioned the golden girl after a combination of herself,” Deborah O’Kelley added.
Jacquie hand-drew the company’s logos early on and the drawings are still the main inspiration for the company’s packaging. Her love of music is also why one of the products is called “Bluesberry” as opposed to “Blueberry.”
As the company continues to grow, they have considered adding a second shift or may seek to acquire additional space at Phoenix Park. However, the O’Kelleys are pleased with how they’ve been able to maximize what they have currently and continue to grow as a result.
Valley Voice Correspondent M.E. Jones contributed to this report.