MIDDLE GROVE — Katlin Rhodes attacks each project she takes on with a clear solution in mind. From her professional vocation to her side hustles, every endeavor is based in purpose and driven by the goal of solving an issue that has presented itself in her life.
Rhodes lives in Middle Grove, just outside Saratoga Springs, and is originally from Chenango County in Central New York. Her “big-girl job,” as she calls it, is in industrial hygiene and focuses on occupational hazards. She is now a certified industrial hygienist (a lengthy and difficult accreditation to achieve) and chose her career path because of the conditions her father, a welder, worked in that led to a decline in his health.
Rhodes said her father was “not knowledgeable about the hazards of his job and the fumes he was breathing in,” which caused him to develop COPD, a chronic lung ailment that Rhodes said will ultimately contribute to his death.
Her professional life is now dedicated to ensuring others never risk their own health because of their jobs.
But most people who know Rhodes recognize her from the other occupations: professional hiking guide and owner of TogaNola, a granola company that is a vendor at the Spa City Farmers’ Market in Saratoga on Sundays. Rhodes began making granola in 2015 “on accident,” she said, while she was training for a marathon. She relied on store-bought granola bars as a healthy pre- and post-training snack, “but I didn’t feel that good after I ate them,” she said. While the bars were marketed as healthy, Rhodes said, she realized, “every time I eat one, I’m eating a good amount of refined sugar.”
Around the same time, Rhodes (a self-proclaimed “nerd”) began reading about and researching whole foods and plant-based diets, and she found that most granola available commercially was a sugar bomb with sweetness akin to candy bars. She started making her own granola bars as a way to reduce sugar and embrace a whole-foods lifestyle, but after sharing them with friends and her husband’s co-workers, she was soon influenced by the “positive pressure” to sell them, she said, and began TogaNola later that year.
“I’m kind of an all-or-nothing person,” Rhodes said, and she soon received an exemption to a 20-C food processing license to make her granola bars in her home kitchen, a variance provided by New York state that she said is vital to providing opportunities for small food producers who can’t afford large commercial spaces.
“If that didn’t exist, I don’t know if we would have gone into business in the first place,” Rhodes said. She cannot sell TogaNola products on her own outside of New York with that license, but others can distribute for her, including 9 Miles East, which incorporates her granola into its food delivery service throughout New York and in Boston. TogaNola is otherwise sold at the Spa City Farmers’ Market and on the company’s website.
Rhodes chose to focus on granola bars because there were many other local vendors who produced bagged loose granola, and “it was kind of the convenience factor [of a bar], plus the ability to make it with whole foods and have it retain their shelf life. I didn’t want to make a snack that would become crumbs in the bottom of someone’s hiking pack,” she said. TogaNola granola is marketed as “performance-based” and Rhodes uses the hashtag #adventurefuel in her social media posts. As a certified hiking guide, Rhodes knows the importance of having snacks that will provide a big dose of energy while taking up very little room in a hiking pack. Being well-prepared with nutrient-dense food is critical to being safe in the wilderness, she said, which keeps the hiker safe and also prevents the need for a rescue that could jeopardize mountain rescue crews.
TogaNola products focus on local ingredients that are non-dairy, gluten-free, plant-based (honey from the Adirondacks is the only animal byproduct), soy-free and do not use refined sugar. Most customers are from the farmers’ market, and Rhodes said that people can taste the difference between her bars and mass-produced products immediately.
“Anytime we have a one-on-one experience, people realize they aren’t putting money in the hands of a CEO that will never recognize them,” she said. And as the face of the company along with her husband, Ken, she is able to better communicate the direct economic impact each sale has on her life to customers.
TogaNola owner Katlin Rhodes at right.
However, for Rhodes, it is not all about money. She speaks of “people over profit” and enacts that mentality by posting recipes and how-to tips for making granola at home on TogaNola’s Facebook account. “People don’t feel empowered to make their own [granola]. People are intimidated with getting their hands dirty and putting together whole-food products for their families,” she said. The tutorials are a way to make a whole-food lifestyle more approachable.
Rhodes finds that focusing on bars is what sets her company apart from other granola makers, and they will continue to be her flagship product. She is in the process of building a commercial kitchen space, which will allow her to sell products directly from a storefront and break into other performance-based fuel categories, such as trail mixes and energy bites.
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“There is a huge market for whole-foods-based snacks,” she said, noting she will deepen her connection and focus on the hiking and outdoor enthusiast demographic with these products.
TogaNola will never be Rhodes’ “only” job, she admits. “I get bored very easy. I have lots of passions and interests,” she said. She is proud of her certifications in industrial hygiene and plans to continue that work regardless of her granola company’s success, but her hope is that TogaNola will become a bigger brand in the local market and one that is self-sustaining.
“I plan to be here indefinitely,” she said, and will always stretch personally and professionally in a way that focuses on health and positive living.