Photo by Kira Erickson/Whidbey News Group
                                Kitchen Manager Hannah Hunsberger demonstrates how to mix the granola together before baking Jan. 9.

Photo by Kira Erickson/Whidbey News Group Kitchen Manager Hannah Hunsberger demonstrates how to mix the granola together before baking Jan. 9.

Crunch time: Family’s granola business growing quickly

When her daughter was growing up, Marybeth Shirley wanted to make her a breakfast option that didn’t contain wheat. Switching to a grain-free diet had also helped improve Shirley’s own health.

So within her garage a certified gluten-free, granola-baking kitchen was born, safe enough for anyone with celiac disease to enter.

“I started this at my house because my kids were young,” she said, “and I needed to be able to stay home with them still and have my business here.”

Her business has existed since around 2012, when Shirley began selling her products at local farmers markets and to parents from the Waldorf School. It soon grew, with smaller stores around the island carrying her product as well as chain stores on the mainland.

Shirley noted that traditional granolas containing oats on grocery store shelves usually have a higher sugar content, and she strived to make hers with natural alternatives for sweeteners.

Primal Island Granola’s four flavors are grain-free and coconut-based, created with pecans, almonds, honey, various extracts, spices, apple-juice-sweetened berries and more. Ingredients come mostly from Oregon and all are organic except for one.

Shirley hopes people look at the ingredients and understand what goes into making the granola, since it is not an inexpensive product to make.

“I try to make things that anybody would eat, not just people who are gluten-free,” Shirley said. “That’s a main goal, to not have it be any less than awesome.”

Even the FedEx man who delivers the ingredients is a fan.

Of the many ways to enjoy her granola, one of the most unique ways she heard from an enthusiast was to bread fish with it.

“I have these ideas in my head when I put a product out, and I’m always amazed by what people do with it,” she said.

Part of Primal Island’s charm is its handmade process. Working three days per week, three bakers stir ingredients, arrange them on baking sheets and package them — all by hand. She estimates 1,300 bags are packaged each week.

“We’re small enough that it’s still made in hand batches,” Shirley said. “One of the things that we’ll have to decide as we grow is, do we continue to make it this way or go to some more automated machinery?”

Kitchen Manager Hannah Hunsberger demonstrates how much wet and dry ingredients should be mixed, even when the baker thinks they have been mixed enough.

“It’s just a matter of really getting in there and making sure everything gets combined really well,” Hunsberger said. “I’m not sure how well that would work with a mixer.”

Hunsberger and fellow baker Katherine Jacobson-Ross agreed the process is down to a science and easy enough for anyone to learn.

With REI planning to carry the product starting this spring, Shirley hopes her granola may soon have a chance to receive nationwide recognition. But with this kind of acknowledgement comes growing pains.

As part of the solution to this issue, she said shifts can be lengthened and more workers could be added to the Primal Island team.

“We want to stay in this location as long as possible and make it work as long as possible,” Shirley said.

Her son devised the newest flavor of granola, coming out this month. Available in a smaller size of bag than usual, a cocoa and peppermint flavor is coming to stores soon.

Shirley is currently developing a keto chocolate cupcake powder mix, which could be hitting shelves as soon as this year.

“We’d like to branch out the Primal Island brand to cover both paleo and keto,” she said. “Paleo and keto go well together, so it’s not that much of a stretch.”

Primal Island Granola is sold at the Community Goose Grocer, Payless Foods and the Star Store on South Whidbey, as well as Safeway, QFC, PCC, Metropolitan Market, Whole Foods and more.

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