SAN FRANCISCO — Count an Academy Award-winning actress and a former Tennessee Titans safety among fans of gr8nola, a brand of low-sugar, superfood-inspired granola developed by a Bay Area-based techie-turned-foodie.
Founder Erica Liu Williams was “floored” when she spotted her snack’s signature purple packaging on movie star Halle Berry’s Instagram feed late last year. But gr8nola probably wouldn’t exist without another famous follower, professional football player Tank Williams, who also happens to be Ms. Williams’ husband. He had begged her to whip up homemade batches of her healthier take on granola, which began as an experiment during the pair’s annual post-Super Bowl anti-inflammatory cleanse eight years ago. Instead of refined sugars and oils, her recipe contains organic coconut sugar or honey, monk fruit extract and organic virgin coconut oil.
“I wasn’t even much of a baker back then,” said Ms. Williams, also an athlete, who competed twice in the US Olympic swimming trials. “It was never meant to be a business. I was making it for a year or so, all year long whether we were cleansing it or not, just by demand of Tank.”
In 2013, she began selling her granola at a farmers’ market while continuing her full-time job at a technology company. A friend working at Google learned about Ms. Williams’ side project and introduced her to the food sourcing team there. Ms. Williams participated in Google’s annual micro-kitchen fair, where the company’s employees sample and choose which snacks and beverages are served on-site. Ms. Williams’ brand was selected, and she received her first purchase order, for 1,400 lbs of granola.
“I didn’t even know what a co-packer was, but I had to figure it all out to produce this,” Ms. Williams said. “Google was my first customer outside of the farmers’ market.”
From there, gr8nola expanded into the office pantries of Twitter, Facebook, DropBox, LinkedIn and other firms across Silicon Valley. Ms. Williams eventually quit her main gig to focus on the startup and began adding new flavors, including matcha, turmeric, cacao and an activated charcoal-infused variety called Black Coco Chia.
“I knew I wanted to have unique positioning around the flavors,” she said. “My brand values are bold, friendly, fun and modern.”
The products contain no soy, dairy, refined sugars, artificial ingredients or vegetable oils. The original granola combines whole grain oats, almonds, ground flaxseed, honey and cinnamon. Other flavors contain ingredients such as sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, coconut flakes and ginger.
Peddling granola in bulk on corporate campuses has been the predominant go-to-market strategy for Ms. Williams, who has self-funded her business largely through those sales. But in March, her volume evaporated as the pandemic shuttered offices, with several large companies announcing long-term and even permanent work-from-home shifts.
“When COVID hit, I got hit with huge returns,” she said. “But that forced me to seek out new channels.”
She immediately began partnering with food salvaging subscription boxes such as Misfits Market and plans to launch with meal delivery company Sun Basket, which she expects will help build brand awareness on a national scale. Her products also are sold in about 100 stores in California and online at the brand’s website, gr8nola.com.
“There is a funnel of people who repeatedly and ritualistically eat my product every day … and I do see how it has transferred to my direct-to-consumer sales,” Ms. Williams said. “Even though they got to eat my product at their office for free, now they come to my website and buy other flavors or they just buy it to have at home.”
Supply chain disruptions driven by the pandemic led to significant increases in input costs, which prompted her to seek out new suppliers for ingredients, including oats and almonds.
“When things are going well and you’re growing, you’re not always optimizing your (cost of goods sold), and it’s not something I’ve done for some time,” she said. “So I was actually really grateful for that because now I’m able to achieve a price that’s pretty competitive to what I was getting three years ago with a lot more volume.”
As online sales began accelerating, she overhauled the brand’s website to improve overall user experience and highlight influencer testimonials, including the Hollywood-tinged praise from Ms. Berry, who enthused, “I could eat the whole bag!”
In January, Ms. Williams is set to launch a new gr8nola variety, “a classic flavor with an adaptogenic, superfood twist,” in collaboration with reality television personality and photographer Nigel Barker, yet another famed fan of the brand. Future innovation may extend the brand beyond granola, something that’s “a little bit more snackable” such as energy clusters, she said.