Entrepreneur turns favor for friend into gluten- and grain-free granola business – StarTribune.com

Five years ago, Kathryn Nelson went above and beyond to help a friend find a healthy, low carb, on-the-go cereal.

Nelson, who at the time was working at a coffee shop in St. Paul, decided to make her friend a customized granola mix. One of Nelson’s duties at the coffee shop was making granola. In this instance, though, Nelson removed oats and added more nuts and seeds.

Fueled by her friend’s response, Nelson made more. Other friends enjoyed, too, prompting Nelson to consider selling it.

“I had a knack for granola,” she said.

Nelson in 2016 began selling her grain-free, gluten free granola at the Maple Grove Farmers Market and Northeast Farmers Market in Minneapolis under the brand name, Coco, Bee & Nut. Two years later, her products were picked up by Kowalski’s Market and Lunds & Byerlys stores in the Twin Cities, and also local food cooperatives like Lakewinds and Seward Community.

Coco, Bee & Nut has five variations of her granola mixes, which are available at nearly 50 stores across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. In the past five years, the company has surpassed $400,000 in retail sales, Nelson said. Ten percent of sales have gone to a Ugandan family Nelson met while visiting the African country years ago.

Coco, Bee & But will soon be available for sale on Amazon, a move Nelson said will generate more revenue.

Because her granola does not include oats, it’s become an option for people looking to keep their blood sugar low, Nelson said.

“A lot of diabetics have e-mailed me and have said, ‘Your granola is the only kind I can eat,'” she said.

Nelson saw a surge in business in 2020, with more consumers spending time at grocery stores due to stay-at-home orders, and people wanting to consume healthier snacks, she said. Her food was also included in a few kits that were donated to front line medical workers across the U.S..

Helping Nelson operate Coco, Bee & Nut are her parents and siblings, who contribute to the baking, mixing, packaging and labeling of her products, along with making mixing equipment and graphic design of her labels, most of which is done from the gluten-free Waters Edge commercial kitchen in Maplewood.

Unsure of how store sales would go during the pandemic, she used a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and a grant from Ramsey County to put money toward online advertising.

In addition to eating for on-the-go, Nelson said the granola mixes can be used as toppings on yogurt, vegetables or fish.

“We want this to be what I would want to eat,” she said.

Nelson, who majored in communications and minored in electronic music production at the University of St. Thomas, has balanced working in the service industry while growing Coco, Bee & Nut, but is now segueing into simultaneously working in the voice-over industry, a career that would allow her to narrate audio books or commercials, among other things.

While her dream was to be a singer, making granola still provides an outlet to express her creative side.

“I’ve really proven to myself I can do a lot of things and that I’m a hard worker,” she said. “You have to push through sometimes, because you never know where things are going to lead.”