Granola with a conscience

By ELIZABETH RAU  |  November 24, 2010


With all those honey-flavored oats and nuts, granola is tempting enough for Rhode Island's neo-hippie set. But add a scoop of goodwill to the mix and you invite a veritable stampede of Birkenstocks.

Meet Keith Cooper and Geoff Gordon, co-founders of the Providence Granola Project, whose mission is to help new immigrants build lives in Rhode Island by teaching them how to make, of all things, granola.

And not just any granola — this is a sweet, crunchy, mostly-organic granola that has developed a respectable following since the business opened two years ago in Cooper's East Side kitchen.

The company makes 500 pounds of granola a month now and hopes to kick that up to 800 or 900 pounds over the holidays, with new offerings available through its spruced-up website,

The granola is sold in bulk, as well as in 6- to 15-ounce plastic bags. Granola fiends in need of a steady fix can join the Granola of the Month Club for a different recipe every month, concocted by Cooper, the head chef. (Among previous offerings: ChocoBanola, Slumdog, and Sweet Sassy Fig.)

It's been a fun ride for the duo, tickled by their success.

"Keith and I shook hands and said, 'Let's do this, and we'll call it a hobby,' " says Gordon. "It's definitely growing into a viable business. Rhode Island is a state that has a love affair with food — Del's Lemonade, coffee milk, Rhode Island clam chowder. It would be nice to join that club."

Like most great ideas, Providence Granola came together during a late-night talk between two friends probing deep and relevant topics, like how to help poor people in a country of abundance.

Cooper and Gordon met in the 1990s at Brown University, where they both worked as campus ministers. Eventually, they went their separate ways — Gordon got his MBA, Cooper his MFA — but met up again years later.

Gordon, 40, owner of a photo booth rental business, was living in Mystic, Connecticut, and Cooper, 46, was working at the International Institute of Rhode Island, helping immigrants from Burundi, Eritrea, Myanmar, and other countries find jobs.

One night, after a few beers, the two decided to launch a business, with one requirement: It had to have a social purpose. Granola seemed like a good fit. Cooper had been making granola for years for family and friends. Why not for the state?

After whipping up a few batches at Cooper's house, the guys realized they needed more room and moved to the Amos House, where they rent space in the nonprofit's kitchen. The oats, spelt, sesame seeds, and other ingredients are pre-toasted and mixed with honey and sucanat, a minimally-refined cane sugar, and then everything is baked. Each shift lasts about eight hours; workers are paid by the hour.

"Keith is the real chef and artisan," says Gordon. "I'm the business strategy and marketing person."

The granola is delicious (voted best in the state by Rhode Island Monthly), but the real stars are the workers, newly arrived immigrants under Cooper's wing at the International Institute. Many lived for years in refugee camps so they have little or no job experience.

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  Topics: This Just In , Myanmar, food, Burundi,  More more >
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