We speak to Robin Longden, the founder of Rollagranola, to find out why their granola is different, more about their Hitchin HQ and ambitions for the future
What was the inspiration behind Rollagranola?
We wanted to provide home-made style granola with stacks of nuts at a price that was affordable for people who wanted something better than the mainstream offering. Our goal was to make food that tasted good, but ultimately had a health benefit. These priorities have not changed since we launched the business in 2014 – it really does form one of our strongest core values.
How do you look back on the time when you started to create your own granola in your kitchen?
The start was in a way both the most challenging – making new recipes, learning to sell direct, tuning the products in to take account of consumer feedback, figuring out pricing and raw material costs. This time was such a huge learning curve, but in some ways, it was also the easiest as there was only ever me involved. If anything went wrong, it was just for me to deal with!
What was your first creation?
Walnut Warrior – a low sugar nutty oat granola. Many of the ingredients in this mix were the same that we use today such as avocado oil, unsulphured coconut and Sri Lankan cinnamon. But the granola also had demerara sugar at 7% and standard oats, both of which we moved away from as a result of detailed consumer feedback.
How soon did you think this was a viable business opportunity?
In hindsight, it took a while! The business had started to grow gradually through our presence at farmers’ markets, word of mouth and local stores and delis. Operationally we rented a factory in 2016 and took on our first employees, which felt like a big commitment. But as big a step as that was, we knew we had a great product that brought a fresh offering to the UK market and we were confident we could scale up.
So, in 2018 (realising it really was make or break time!) I gave up all of my consulting work and turned my attention to Rollagranola full time.
What was the reaction like when you took your products to local farmers’ markets?
Back in 2014, lots of people didn’t even really know what granola was! But they were intrigued and wanted to know more. The farmers’ market gave us a platform to talk about our product and our passion for quality ingredients. Not coming from a sales background, there was a lot for me to learn and it gave me a great overview of what people were looking for in food brands.
How did the Hitchin HQ come about?
We had a new customer who approached me at Broadway Market in Hackney in 2015 who asked if we could export to Denmark. After a detailed conversation, we realised the opportunity in front of us and needed to make a choice: convert the whole house into a granola making facility or find a factory!
We struggled to find the right premises for food production initially, until we visited the Hitchin site which was tidy, well ordered and well suited for our business needs. We then approached Agritech in Cambridge and achieved a grant to help us get up and running… the rest is history as they say.
What would we find there on a typical day?
A busy site with about 12-14 people working really hard to make granola whilst juggling admin and sales. There are two super-sized gas ovens, three packing lines and vehicles going in and out at the end of the day. We roast up to 700 trays and pack around 600 boxes of granola each day – suffice to say, there’s a lot going on.
How have you managed to keep up operations during the pandemic?
We looked at our options at the start of the pandemic. As a food production site we were permitted to keep open, but we needed to observe distancing and make sure we followed the rules, alas we stopped all site visits and kept things as simple as we could.
Like many businesses we put more emphasis on online channels and collaborated with a number of players who were doing grocery deliveries. The business actually grew through 2020, but margins were impacted by logistics. We also looked at new developments and originated a new snack range, built relationships with export customers and put in place plans to further expand, which eventually helped us to grow in 2021.
What are the latest products from Rollagranola?
Almond Pecan Crunch and Keto Warrior are our two latest offerings. Almond Pecan Crunch is a granola with 21% nuts and 2% sugar (with some sweetness coming from naturally derived sweeteners and plant fibres). For us this is a big departure – to use a manufactured product, but we felt it served the customer need and still had that great taste and strong nutritional profile.
Keto Warrior is a blackcurrant granola with less than 10% carbs, high fat and high in protein aligning to the Keto diet. We developed these in 2021 and launched at the end of that year.
All these products are made by hand, by us in Hitchin.
Do you have a favourite creation?
All our products are part of the family, some aren’t always at the top of my list, whilst others may get awards, but the same effort goes in regardless and I love them all, so not really!
Would you say there is a particular ethos behind the company?
It’s always been about creating nutty, natural and healthy food that sustains our customers and aims to contain the best ingredients possible. It’s as close to the home-made food that I started out making, but it’s now made at scale in a factory.
We know what we do is more expensive than a lot of the other granolas out there, but many people understand that they really do get what they pay for. Our aim is to provide decent value for people who want healthy, great quality food.
Do you get much time to enjoy what Hitchin has to offer?
Sadly, not much! Occasionally we may eat out with a customer or have a social with the team, but in reality most of our time is spent making granola or working with customers, suppliers and consumers. Hitchin is a lovely town and has a lot to offer, I guess as a classic SME we are always short of time and long on work…
What are your ambitions for Rollagranola?
The crazy version is we want to build a strong branded business with the ability to ship products anywhere in the world where people value our type of product and where the opportunity arises to then collaborate with local partners to embed our products within a local supply chain and manufacturing base. This would allow us to be the premium mainstream granola company in the UK and build strong regional collaborations internationally.
In the less crazy version, we hope to maintain our current rate of growth at 60-70% per annum for the next 5 years. That alone would make me a very happy man!