the simple life

Oat Couture

Why were 17,000 people on a wait list for chic granola?

High fashion. Photo: Marcus McDonald
A clear purse on a gold chain filled with granola against a purple background.
High fashion. Photo: Marcus McDonald
A clear purse on a gold chain filled with granola against a purple background.
High fashion. Photo: Marcus McDonald

Tom Bannister did not mean to start a granola company, but when you are an Instagram influencer married to an Instagram celebrity, these things just happen. One day you’re just a regular granola-loving ad executive, and then your wife, who happens to be Eva Chen, head of fashion at Instagram, starts to post videos of you reviewing various granolas, and so you learn to make granola. “It became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Bannister. “It became a snowball.” One thing leads to another, and suddenly you’re in the granola biz.

Now, Tom’s Perfect 10 is a granola for our times. Tom drops a new flavor every month. Each ten-ounce bag costs $20. You can buy them individually, but the only way to ensure you get one is to subscribe. At one point, there were, somewhat famously, 17,000 people on the waiting list, and Chen christened it “the Birkin of granolas.” Bannister had agreed to send me some (I was curious!), but the USPS failed us; instead, it arrived by Uber packed in a shopping bag from Chanel. “Not so granola now!” I thought.

I felt chosen. I felt insane. You could chalk it up to the power of Instagram, but it is more than that: “People,” Bannister tells me, “love granola.”

Before granola was granola, it was an unappealing mixture of crumbled, twice-baked hardtack concocted by 19th-century health reformers for the “maximum nutriment” of their sanitarium patients. It was saltless, sugarless, and virtuous. It did not catch on. But it did set a tone: When hippies revived granola in the 1960s, it was as an earthy rebuttal to industrial cereals and processed values. From the beginning, nostalgia for an imagined past has been part of the pitch.

“Remember how it was, America?” begins the original commercial for Heartland Natural Cereal. “Before the cities swallowed us up?” It was 1972, and Heartland was about to be the country’s first mass-market granola. “Most of us lived on the land. We were simple, natural people.” But things had changed, you see, and “a lot of people feel our world has grown too complicated, too artificial.” As Jim Matson, the executive who invented Heartland, would explain to Rolling Stone a few years later, “there was a need to retreat to a simpler style of life.” Maybe oats were the answer? “I figured that people didn’t want to give up a hell of a lot, but they did want to withdraw from the confusion all around them.”

Granola is an escape. It is also a cereal of contradictions. It is terminally unglamorous; it is forever chic. It is a health food maligned for its caloric content. It is embarrassingly earnest and also archly self-aware. And it is always timely: No food has come into fashion more times without ever actually going out of style. “Granola, the signature food of the 1960s, is finding new life in the ’90s,” announced the New York Times. Granola found new new life again in the 2000s (“I think granola will be the cupcake of ’09,” predicted Brooklyn Flea co-founder Eric Demby) and even newer life in the 2010s, when, according to the Times, granola “traded in the bulky sweater for a little black dress” and started to pop up on every tasting menu in America. Now it is 2021. I do not want to jinx it, but I’m pretty sure granola is still back.

Bannister is not the only person to surf granola’s latest wave; in October, Camilla Marcus, who’d closed her Soho café, West~bourne, the month before, reinvented the business as an online shop and doubled down on her granola. It, too, is a wholesome luxury, in flavor as well as price ($13 for six ounces), although in every other way, the products are about as different as two luxury granolas can get. West~bourne’s is spare, elegant, deeply caramelized. The flavor never changes; it is always “granola.” Tom’s, on the other hand, is whimsical, Instagrammable, and a perpetual surprise. This month’s flavor is “ginger zing.”

Photo: Marcus McDonald

“I think it’s a really big category,” says Nekisia Davis, a granola-world legend who, in 2008, founded Early Bird — one of the first-generation cool granolas — while working as a manager at the farm-to-table pizzeria Franny’s. “That was the time when everyone was like, ‘Oh, if we salt the chocolate, it tastes a lot more like chocolate.’” Salted caramel was everywhere; downtown, olive-oil gelato was becoming a big deal. But those sweet-and-savory contrasts had yet to penetrate granola. “Everything on the shelf felt really flabby and uninteresting,” Davis recalls; the options weren’t bad, but why weren’t they better? So Davis made her first batch of granola using olive oil rather than the more-standard canola. She has not changed the recipe since.

At some point, you’d think we might have reached a saturation point for high-fashion granola. “We get it!” we would say. “We have explored the boundaries of granola, and we have found them. We understand granola.” Eventually you’d think the thrill might start to wane. It hasn’t. Granola is having a moment all the time.

“I mean, so are Birkenstocks,” Davis points out. “Will they ever go out of fashion? Probably not.” (I confirmed this in French Vogue: “No, Birkenstocks are not out of fashion,” the magazine promised this past summer.) Granola has that same staying power, Davis argues. It is comforting but also edgy. Innovative but familiar. Rustic but ripe for reinvention. “Granola is riding that line between city mouse and country mouse,” Davis suggests. “It’s like, Am I a hippie, or do I drive a Porsche? People love that shit.”

Bannister echoes the sentiment, albeit in slightly milder terms: “I think it kind of mixes different lifestyles,” he says. “It has that slightly crunchy, slightly New Age vibe to it, but then it’s also slightly funny.” It is a breakfast, a snack, a pie crust, and an ice cream topping. We are not actually trying to recapture a bygone era but the fantasy of a bygone feeling; what that feeling tastes like can be anything you want. “It’s a blank canvas,” explains Bannister. “It has unlimited creative potential, basically.”

Why Were 17,000 People on a Wait List for This Granola?