Mike Shuster and Lisa Zaccaglini decided to be capitalists after two solid decades of making fine art.
To their great surprise, the Stanford-educated oil painters turned out to be better at creating and marketing an all-American consumer product than they had been at making pictures.
The couple make Mu Mu Muesli — a whole-grain breakfast cereal that’s catching on in the Northeast. They just sold their 100,000th bag and now supply 125 stores, including seven Whole Foods Markets.
“For some reason, I don’t feel bad about being a capitalist with this cereal,” Zaccaglini laughed.
She couldn’t put her finger on the guilt-free nature of their product, but it’s actually pretty clear to the outside observer. The couple mix and packages their cereal in a tiny walled-off section of the front porch of their Sharon Springs home. The place is a rough-hewn haven of clean air and clean living perched at the top of a steep, winding gravel driveway.
Shuster pulled a bowl from the kitchen cabinet and filled it with a few small cupfuls of grain and dried fruit.
“Try this,” he said.
Before adding a little yogurt, the stuff looked like hard-core health food or possibly horse feed. In Muesli’s case, appearances are deceiving. It’s full of distinct flavors, nuts, oats, coconut and apple sweetened Massachusetts cranberries. There are just eight ingredients, all whole, organic American made, “and you can pronounce all of them,” she said.
Zaccaglini shies away from the usual health food lingo.
“People are tired of health food,” she said, stating simply that whole foods are cleaner and tastier than the toasted, processed ingredients baked into Cheerios and such.
Though Shuster is a self-proclaimed food industry neophyte, his scraped-together business ethic built Mu Mu into a pretty substantial success in just five years.
Back in 2008, Shuster and Zaccaglini were fresh off the cut-throat New York City art scene, living in Sharon Springs,
commuting to freelance interior decorating jobs and enjoying their own personal concoction of grain and fruit breakfast cereal when lightning struck.
“People told us to put our money into government bonds,” he said. “They told us, ‘Your friends will tell you the cereal is great and you’ll be flat broke.’ ”
Obviously they didn’t listen, starting out with a single 10-pound scale and a bunch of 5-gallon mixing buckets. Right off the bat, a health food store in their old Brooklyn neighborhood picked it up, but they sold only 10 bags a month.
“Then a friend told us to go to the Schenectady Greenmarket,” she said. That’s when it took off.
In four hours on a single Sunday, Zaccaglini buttonholed scores of passers-by into trying the product, and sold well over 100 bags.
“Didn’t matter if they were 20 feet away,” Shuster laughed, “She’d shout at them ‘Come try our cereal.’ ”
They credit the Schenectady Greenmarket with the current success of their business. It wouldn’t have survived a year without the market, but Mu Mu Muesli has since outgrown the Proctors Arcade.
Six months ago, health food industry juggernaut Whole Foods approved the cereal for regional sales.
“When you’re an artist, you want to see your work in the Met,” he said. “We never made it to that level in the art world, but Whole Foods is the cereal equivalent.”
So far they stock seven stores with the option to stock 17 more. After five years in the business, they’re consciously slow to expand. The current seven markets they supply are in areas Muesli already has an established following, or “tribe,” to use a term Shuster picked up from the business world.
Before moving forward to the other stores, he needs to develop new regional tribes.
“If we go to all of them right now, we’ll fail,” he said, listing one very important reason.
With the cost of shipping, middle men and top-drawer ingredients, a 20-ounce bag of Mu Mu Muesli sells from the Whole Foods shelves for $9. At that price, people need to taste to believe.
These days, Shuster travels to two of the seven Whole Foods markets every week to give out samples, averaging 70 to 90 sales a day. The plan is to build a solid following in their current stores before moving to the other 17 a few at a time.
Within a year, they hope to move the cereal operation from their porch to a barn Shuster built with his own two hands and a county IDA loan.
“Eventually, we hope to have some employees,” Zaccaglini said, “so we can stop doing factory work.”