Sheila Hannon is the Founder of Georgian Bay Granola Company (GBGC), a family-owned and operated business that produces certified organic granola in north-western Ontario. Sheila is in her 60s, but has been creating projects, plans and programs since she finished art school in her 20s.
We connected with Sheila to learn how GBGC originated and throughout our chat, we learned the experiences Sheila had during her 20s have helped her create a successful business now. Every tough lesson learned over the last four decades has impacted Sheila’s life and business path.
An artist at heart, Sheila has brought her passions for creating and producing locally sourced food into one with GBGC. Read more about her story below:
- You started Georgian Bay Granola Company in a small summer market in Parry Sound, ON in July 2012. What inspired you to start making and selling granola?
I was feeling disenchanted with the commercialism of gift giving so began to make granola, put it in glass jars and gave them to family and friends for gifts. I got great feedback and lots of suggestions to go commercial.
I started to serve and sell my granola in my bed and breakfast and again got great feedback and lots of sales.
At the same time, there was an outdoor market in the park that was virtually outside my front door. So, I joined the market and sold my granola there and got a great response from both locals and tourists alike. It rained one day at the market and rather than have my product ruined, I took it to stores in Parry Sound and asked them to sell it. I had to guarantee the sales but it worked out. All of the stores sold out and ordered more. I then took my granola to Muskoka, Barrie and then Toronto. We now sell in about 300 stores across Ontario.
- How long did it take you to reach out to these various retail locations in the province and land the opportunity to sell your product there?
We were able to get about 100 stores in about the first year of business and then added another 200 stores over the next three years. We just kept phoning businesses and walking into stores offering our product. We really believe in developing relationships with our customers.
- What’s it like owning and operating a business in Parry Sound?
It’s a great place to live. Clean air, quiet, great scenery. I also have family here. My mother is 96 so I try to be in Parry Sound as much as possible.
There are challenges though. The distance to market is an issue at times. I spend a lot of time on the road.
- Why is it so important to you to support and sell products that are made in Canada?
It’s important to me to provide a local product and contribute to the community. We try to use as many local ingredients as possible, given the constraints of our recipes and that all ingredients must be organic. We get our organic honey from Hockley Valley and our organic maple syrup from the Mennonites in South Western Ontario. Our organic blueberries and cranberries come from Quebec.
- GBGC is a family business that prides itself on organic and healthy, though very yummy, foods. Who helps you produce your granola and manage your company?
My daughter Hannah and I look after the sales and contacting potential customers. About a year ago, my niece’s husband Martin signed on to help us organize the business side of the company. My daughter Leah is a chef and I consult with her about recipes. She’s also done her share of baking. Hannah, and my other daughter Emma, have volunteered as bakers for GBGC. Emma’s husband Daniel has, as well. My son Jesse is a lawyer and so valuable for legal advice, as well.
Just about everyone in the family has helped at some point in time. Sisters, brother, nieces, nephews and grandchildren all act as taste testers.
- You make a few types of granola. Do you have a favourite?
We started out with Sugar Bush Maple and Wildflower Honeybee Crunch and that’s all we sold for the first year-and-a-half. Later, we added Coconut Mango Bliss, inspired by Cuban cuisine. Recently, we actually came out with a new flavour Apple Blueberry Crisp – my new favourite. With organic wild blueberries and apples, Ceylon cinnamon and organic maple syrup, what’s not to like!?
- How long did it take to test and create these granola flavours? What was the process like?
The first two flavours, Sugar Bush Maple and Wildflower Honeybee Crunch, were easy. I’d been making granola for over 30 years and developed these two recipes from all of that experience. I love the combination of cranberries, pecans, pumpkin seeds and maple syrup so Sugar Bush Maple was born from that.
Wildflower Honeybee Crunch was a more traditional granola based on recipes from the 1960s and 70s. We initially called it Hippy Dippy! In the original recipe, we used almonds, raisins, sunflower seeds sesame seeds and wildflower honey. Back in the 60s and 70s, it seemed like everything had sesame seeds in it. Although I loved the flavour of sesame seeds in the recipe, we later replaced them with hemp hearts as sesame seeds can cause serious allergic reactions in some people. Hemp hearts were a great, nutritious replacement.
We added Coconut Mango Bliss in 2014 in response to a request from La Cubana restaurant in Toronto. My daughter Leah was working there as Chef de Cuisine and wanted a Cuban inspired granola for their brunch menu. So, after a lot of testing, we came out with Coconut Mango Bliss. Really yummy with organic mango, crunchy banana chips, lots of coconut, green raisins and coconut nectar, which is low on the glycemic index and loaded with nutrients.
Our most recent granola took the longest to develop. I wanted something that reflects the Parry Sound area and wild blueberries are a natural, as well as maple syrup. I recently discovered Ceylon cinnamon, which has a wonderful subtle fragrant flavour to it and health benefits, as well. I knew this was the key to my new recipe. I can’t tell you how many test bakes it took to get it just right! Almost a year of testing and trying different combinations.
- You started GBGC when you were 59. What were you up to before the company launched?
I have had a lot of different incarnations! My original love was visual art and I went to Sheridan College in 1972-73, then graduated from Toronto School of Art in my 50s. The first business I opened with my ex-husband was an art gallery in Belleville. We were fresh out of art college and were able to source some great artwork for the gallery.
My ex-husband and I opened a t-shirt store in the late 1970s, first in Elora and then Parry Sound back when hot-pressing designs on t-shirts was all the rage. I went on to work in the shelter system in Parry Sound and worked with abused women, homeless people and women with mental health issues in Toronto. In 1996, I moved back to Parry Sound and opened an art gallery and teaching venue. I went on to open a creative children’s store as well. In 2000, I was back to Toronto and combined my social work experience with my artistic training and studied to become an art therapist. I practiced art therapy at the AIDS Committee of Toronto for several years.
I was also a stay at home mum for a lot of years. I have six children.
Exhausted and needing some renewal, I moved back to Parry Sound in 2011 where I opened a bed and breakfast for about a year. I started GBGC shortly after, and the rest is history.
- What was the best part about changing your course, and launching GBGC?
I sometimes ask myself that question. I originally thought that I could use the granola business to support my desire to make art. GBGC, however, has taken on a life of its own and really consumes most of my time now. I’m still trying to find the balance.
- Did you always want to start your own business?
I always wanted to be an artist! That being said I’ve always liked being my own boss and nurturing the creativity in a business.
- As you know, A Quarter Young is a blog that caters to the experiences of 20-somethings. What is the toughest lesson you had to learn about the working world when you were in your 20s?
I learned about the importance of hard work, commitment, family and friends.
- What was the first “professional” or “adult” job you had? What did you love about it? What did you not love so much?
The first adult job I had was at a Steinberg’s grocery store in Ottawa. I was a cashier with my best friend. We would race to see who could put the most groceries through the cash. Customers would ask us to slow down! I was on my feet all day long and the job itself was not as great as the friendships that developed. It helped in the future that I knew how to handle cash, customers and sales.
- How do you think your experiences in your 20s have benefited you, today?
Every experience adds to knowledge and know-how. Opening businesses in my 20s was not a great success financially but I still learned a lot of organizational skills, how to deal with banks and lenders, how to work with staff and customers and how to merchandise and promote products. It was a lot of fun.
- What is one of the best experiences you had when you were first starting out?
It was the whole idea of creating something from scratch. Bringing together ideas and great products.
- How do you think people would have described you when you were in your 20s?
Wow, good question! Crazy maybe? Driven?
- How do you think you have grown and changed since then?
I’ve learned to value family and friends more. I’ve learned to manage time and resources. Still learning that. I’ve learned that a business should be eco friendly, organic if possible, have great products that people want and need and should be profitable. I’ve become more grounded, aware, spiritual.
- Is there anyone in your life right now who has been in your life since your days of being a 20-something? What does their support, their commitment to your success and journey, mean to you?
My mother has always been there. I also have a great friend who started out as an employee but quickly became a best friend. She is someone who supports me, listens and tells me the truth.
- GBGC is active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and have quite the following! Is there a team of people involved in helping you with social media content and strategy?
My daughter Hannah and I both do the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. My daughter has been my teacher and has helped a lot in this regard. It would be great to have a specialist involved but we are not quite there yet.
- What is the best part about using social media to get messaging out there about your products?
Social media has linked us to other companies, suppliers and customers. We often get people who are looking for our product or just want to tell us how great they think our granola is. Others have questions about the products.
- So many people would describe the 20-somethings of today as social media obsessed young professionals, always on their phones! After spearheading a company of your own that is present on social media, what are your thoughts on this assumption?
It might be true of 20-somethings but also of older generations, as well. In a way I feel lucky. When I was a child the phone was on the wall and you had to ask the operator to dial your number. The TV had two or three channels. We went to a theatre to watch movies and played records on record player. Perhaps we had more mental space, freedom from constantly being on call. We were likely outside more. But I can also see how technology is connecting us. I Skype family overseas, text friends and business associates, and connect with customers on social media. We are connected globally about events and world issues. That’s a good thing.
- What do you think older generations labeled your age bracket as when you were in your 20s?
Baby boomers? Hippies? Rebels?
- What advice do you have for 20-somethings and young professionals of today working to make a name for themselves in this cut-throat world?
Have a business plan that ensures you are profitable, eco friendly and people friendly. Hold your vision.
- What’s next for GBGC?
Maybe granola bars. Maybe other products, altogether. I always have ideas!
- Do you have anything else you want to share about your journey, your brand or your personal journey to becoming an entrepreneur?
Listen to people, the earth, plants, animals. We’re all in this together. Think about future generations. Explore a spiritual path en-route to wherever you are going.
Thank you Sheila for inspiring us to always create and to always make time for lessons! We can’t wait to get a taste of GBGC’s future!