Claire Smith was raised on the Addison, Michigan, corn and soybean farm her family has tilled since 1838. But after corn prices plummeted in 2013, they found themselves struggling just to break even. In hopes of leveraging the growing gluten-free market to save the family business, the Smiths began growing teff — a gluten-free ancient grain native to East Africa. But the real breakthrough came when Smith added whole-grain teff to her homemade granola, and happened upon a delicious creation.
In 2016, she founded Teffola. Now sold at local farmers markets and grocery stores, and through online retailers, the brand creates unique granola flavors by layering the teff Smith grows with such ingredients as lemon, lavender oil, vegan chocolate, and almond butter. And she does it all out of the Teffola HQ in Troy. Here, Smith shares her story.
Hour Detroit: Teff is native to East Africa — how were you introduced to it?
Claire Smith: When the farm was struggling, we began looking to grow something else. A friend who works in Africa suggested we try teff because it’s gluten-free and not super well-known in the states.
You’re just 29. What’s it been like starting a business at such a young age?
Easily the most challenging and rewarding process of my life. Going into this, I knew nothing about the food industry, so I’ve worked that much harder to learn every aspect of it. But I’ve been hugely surprised to find I do have a gut instinct when it comes to building a business.
How has your family’s farming legacy shaped your new business venture?
For seven generations, my family grew exclusively livestock feed. What we’re doing now is vastly different from what our ancestors did, but the values they passed on to their children are the same ones I want to pass on to mine. It’s important to me to lay strong foundations, to create something that can be handed down and built upon through future generations.
How have the events of the past year and a half affected Teffola?
Things slowed down massively. There were many days I didn’t know how we’d pull through. But the amount of support we received from family, friends, customers, retailers, suppliers, and vendors showed me that Teffola has grown beyond just me, and that what we have to offer is still needed.
What is your proudest moment working with Teffola?
In April, we partnered with local smoothie brand The Purple Beet for our Bowls
for the Brave initiative and asked the community to help us donate Teffola-topped acai bowls to frontline workers. Our initial goal was 75, but we ended up donating 1,000 bowls to four metro Detroit hospitals.
We’re focused on dreaming up exciting products, like the new, limited-edition Cherry Cacao flavor we’ve co-developed with Zingerman’s! It will be sold exclusively through Zingerman’s, starting this month.
Visit eatteffola.com for retailers.