How One Woman Turned a Batch of Blueberry Muffins into a Cult-Favorite Granola Company

published Jul 15, 2019
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Credit: Heidi Jewell

The Make Your Mark series shows you how some of our favorite food brands got their start. Meet their makers!

When was the last time you had a handful of granola that made you say “Wow, what’s in this stuff?” It happens to me every time I open a bag of Purely Elizabeth, a granola brand (which includes oatmeal, cereal, and snack bars, too) created by a holistic nutritionist who just so happens to be named Elizabeth.

So what is in this stuff? The granolas are a combination of ancient grains, oats, “superfood seeds” (like chia and quinoa), dried fruit, coconut oil, and coconut sugar. Other products in her line contain buzzy ingredients of the past decade including MCT oil, probiotics, pitaya powder, spirulina, adaptogens, and more. Where other food brands are lacking, Purely Elizabeth delivers in the innovation department, intriguing customers who get hooked after just a taste.

We caught up with Elizabeth Stein, the company’s namesake, to learn about how she created a business that’s taken the natural food world by storm — all because of a batch of blueberry muffins.

Credit: Heidi Jewell

Was starting Purely Elizabeth always your plan?

I went back to school to study holistic nutrition in 2007 and it was during that program that I subconsciously had the idea that it would be really cool to start a food company — but it was a fleeting feeling.

In October the following year, I participated in a local triathlon in Westchester, NY. Afterwards, I had a booth to attract clients for my nutrition practice. I brought a batch of these blueberry muffins I made that used all of these superfood ingredients. I got so much interest in the muffins — and not in my nutrition practice! That was where the lightbulb went on and I had my “aha moment.”

I told people, “If you sign up for my newsletter, I’ll let you know when and where these muffins will be available, totally making it up on the spot. A year later, I officially launched Purely Elizabeth at the same race with muffin and pancake mixes to sell.

So, in a funny way, the business idea found you!

Ha! I definitely never had a business plan ever. When I started selling my muffins at the triathlon, I thought, This will be a side project; I’ll sell to clients, and we will just see where it goes. I sold out at the race, and three days later I was contacted by Daily Candy, if you remember that website. They featured Purely Elizabeth in their “Everywhere” newsletter blast and I had $10,000 of orders for the muffin mix within 3 days.

Credit: Courtesy of Purely Elizabeth

What do you think it was about your products that made them so buzz-worthy?

I would say, looking back, that we had created such a unique trend-forward product. It wasn’t a copycat. It was unlike anything people had heard of at the time. We had chia seeds, almond flour, coconut sugar — things that weren’t on people’s radar yet. All of that was really on the cusp. It isn’t until now, 10 years later, that they’re familiar to people. And even now, people are still getting introduced to them. We were ahead of the game.

For lots of small food businesses, getting shelf space in Whole Foods is the ultimate goal. What was the road like to get there?

My mom called every single Whole Foods one by one to get our products in their stores. She was such a big helper. Granted, she is my mom so obviously she had a lot of passion when she made these calls.

But she would just describe what the product was and the buyers were so intrigued they were like, “Sure we will take a case!” We didn’t even send samples — they were like “We’ll take them.” It was the perfect intersection of luck and having something that was truly unique in the marketplace.

What other food brands did you look up to when you were starting out?

When I first started thinking of the idea, I did this interview series “Meet the Healthy Food Entrepreneur.” I can’t find it online anymore, but Justin Gold was one of the interviews! He was definitely somebody who I admired as this young entrepreneur doing amazing things. I loved that his name was in the brand and I felt this personal connection to him. That’s part of why I wanted my name in the brand. He was definitely someone I admired and I was lucky enough to meet him early on and he was very helpful in providing guidance and advice.

Which Purely Elizabeth product is always in your pantry?

It’s obviously so hard because they’re like your children. I’m most excited about this new cauliflower hot cereal that we’re launching. It’s definitely my new favorite. Every time I’m eating it I can’t believe it’s so good. And that it works. Freeze-dried diced cauliflower mimics the mouthfeel and taste of an oatmeal while being grain-free. Also being able to have a vegetable for breakfast on the go is a huge win.

Your products are introducing consumers to ingredients they might not have otherwise tried (like spirulina, reishi, pitaya, etc.). What’s the next ingredient on your radar?

We have an oatmeal coming out with collagen which I’m excited about! And algae is one that I’ve kind of always been watching. I learned about it in my holistic nutrition program. The benefits of algae are amazing and it’s such an incredible plant. We don’t have anything with algae yet, but it’s something on my radar.

What’s your fantasy granola flavor?

I think a lemon-raspberry situation would be very fresh and summery!

What is it about Boulder, CO, that makes it such a hub for health food company headquarters?

I lived in New York City for 12 years. Then I met Justin at a trade show, in the first year of business, and he gave me his cellphone number so I reached out. He told me about his manufacturer based in Boulder. So I came out here the first time to see it and I just fell in love with this quaint, beautiful town at the foothills of a mountain. It’s occupied by all of these natural food companies as well as other emerging startups. I’ve been here five years now. Having this network of all of these other companies made so much sense.

What advice do you give to entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

I think I was very lucky in how the business started out. Because of that instant win, I couldn’t hesitate. I usually give one of the earliest pieces of advice I would get from my dad. He said, “There’s always going to be competition. You don’t want to wait.”

I was meeting with someone this morning to talk about her business and she was deciding about a couple of different scenarios. I was like You just need to go for it because there are only many ducks in a row that you can have. People get caught in perfectionism without ever advancing things forward.

Thanks so much, Elizabeth! Follow Purely Elizabeth on Instagram (duh), and check out her latest healthy products on her site.