After a hard day’s work, how many of us have the time, energy, or inclination to prepare a full-nutrient meal? Is your fallback salt-and-fat-heavy take-out, or a frozen pizza? A better option, invented and marketed on Ithaca’s South Hill gives health-conscious people with four minutes and a microwave a no-fuss dinner or side. The products, under the name “Grainful” are non-GMO, gluten-free, and 100 percent whole grain, with a bit of spiciness and a range of international flavors. And they taste good.
Jan Pajerski, president and co-founder of Grainful, interviewed in his sun-drenched office in the bustling South Hill Business Campus, has a driving goal: to get Grainful whole-grain meals and sides into as many supermarkets and, ultimately, into the microwaves of as many rushed, health-conscious Americans as possible. Eventually, he sees distributing the company’s products internationally. The four-year-old Ithaca-based company’s success is snowballing, and you’ll find their products in hundreds of supermarket frozen food aisles from coast to coast, including those of Giant Eagle, Whole Foods, Publix, Safeway, ShopRite, WinnDixie, and most of the hundred-or-so Wegmans supermarkets in the eastern United States. You’ll find them in the Ithaca store. Pajerski credits his co-founder and chief food officer Jeannine Sacco, with developing the recipes, beginning in 2012, and officially launching the brand in 2014. Sacco and Pajerski crossed paths at Cornell when Sacco was studying at the Hotel School and Pajerski was working in business development for KensaGroup, a company that creates and launches startups to address needs in the marketplace. Pajerski’s KensaGroup tenure provided much of the knowledge needed to found a start-up. Ultimately, the group was also interested in providing support for the Pajerski and Sacco’s project. They had actually begun working on an oat breakfast product in 2011 with support and encouragement from Tony Prudence of the local F&T Distributors, and from the KenzaGroup. Their roots in the Ithaca community are strong. There’s the Cornell connection – both studied there, he in mechanical engineering and she in a joint culinary program under the aegis of both the hotel school and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. His engineering know-how makes him well suited to deal with the production equipment end of things. He credits Cornell with teaching him how to problem solve and work hard, and his year on Cornell’s hockey team may have provided lessons in fortitude. And then a small group of local Ithacans provided seed financing to get the pair’s idea off the ground. He refers to his business partner, Sacco, as “a culinary genius.” “Everything starts with Jeannine and her creativity and culinary skills,” he said. “As chief food officer, she is responsible for all culinary aspects, from research and development to production.”
As do many great inventions, this one started as a fluke – Sacco said she had run out of rice for a jambalaya, and took a chance at substituting another grain she happened to have on hand, steel-cut oats. It was surprisingly good. Experimentation began with the steel-cut oats, but eventually moved to a combination of whole oats, red quinoa, and sorghum, a combination more likely to retain its structural integrity as well as a bit of crunch. Her roomy development kitchen displays a wall of spices and natural flavorings, a gourmet’s dream including everything from your basic salt and pepper to dried mango powder and the full palette of fresh Indian, Thai, and Mexican spices
As we toured the premises, Pajerski opened the door to the shipping room, releasing a delicious whiff of cumin and other fragrances associated with Southeast Asian and South-and-Central American cuisine. The facility itself, like many others in the complex, is spacious, with high ceilings and narrow, blond fir factory flooring, and could easily accommodate a roller rink or basketball court. Some shipping is done from the office, but mostly the South Hill facility is Grainful’s development, marketing, and sales headquarters. The products are manufactured and distributed by contract manufacturers in Pennsylvania. However, there is some talk
Grainful went through a couple of development phases before arriving at the current model, first experimenting with new ways to present oats as a breakfast food, then as a dinner food. “The idea was to provide food that’s healthy, nutritious, and great tasting,” said Pajerski. Along the way, they attracted the attention of the Chobani yogurt folks who awarded them a $25,000 grant targeted to aiding businesses taking the food industry along new, more healthful paths. It was one of only seven granted to more than 500 applicants. Chobani helped them with their products as well as their packaging. The small Grainful team began offering samples in local grocery stores, East Hill Plaza’s P & C Fresh and the Lansing Market, seeking customer feedback. Staff and family contributed their two cents as well. “My kids always want Grainful,” he said.
From that and other testing, Sacco developed eight meals and sides, some with meat, some vegetarian, some vegan. All are high in protein and fiber, low in sodium, and 100 percent whole grain. And they run the gamut from the Indian, tomato-based Chana Masala – oats, sorghum, and red quinoa, with garbanzo beans, tomatoes, peas, and those exotic Indian spices, with pleasant heat, 12 grams of protein, and ten of fiber, at 300 calories – to Ranchero Chicken, with the same grain blend plus chicken, tomato-guajillo pepper sauce, black beans, and cilantro, weighing in at a mere 280 calories, with 17 grams of protein and seven of fiber. Chef Sacco is gluten intolerant, which gives her a personal incentive to render all products gluten free.
Recently Grainful shifted from steel-cut oats, which, says Pajerski, had too runny a consistency, to whole oats, red quinoa, and sorghum. “Whole oats have a risotto-like texture,’ said Pajerski. “We found they had some crunch as well.” And the company just upgraded its packaging to a brighter and zingier version, evoking a sense of culinary and globe-trotting adventures. But you may still find some of the lower-key original packaging and formulas at Wegmans. Perhaps one day those boxes will be collectors items.
“Our goal is to be a national brand and ultimately a world-wide brand,” said Pajerski. “Grains have fed humanity for millennia. We want to be the brand that gives people amazing food from grains. We want to have re-invented the frozen [food] category.”