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Inspiring Conversations with Claire Smith of Teffola

Today we’d like to introduce you to Claire Smith. 

Hi Claire, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
The very beginning of our story was when my parents decided to try growing a unique ancient grain called teff in response to a fluctuating commodities market. Corn and soybean prices were unstable and my dad saw an opportunity to try something different on our 7th generation farm. He learned as much as he could about teff because he’d never heard of it. Teff is a naturally gluten-free grain native to Ethiopia and has been grown there for thousands of years. It’s known for being high in iron, calcium, and protein and has a nutty flavor similar to quinoa. 

In February of 2015, I was living in Canada when my parents came to visit. My dad told me about his plans to grow 33 acres of teff and intentions to eventually sell to Ethiopian restaurants who use it for their traditional bread called injera. He and my mom told me there was an opportunity to build a business using teff and if I wanted to try it, I should go for it. I moved back to Michigan and started learning as much as I could. We found partners to clean and mill the teff into flour and then got onto Amazon. 

We were selling 2- and 5-pound bags of teff flour on Amazon for nearly a year and a half and saw some traction but this “new” alternative grain had potential for so much more. I wanted to find a way to introduce it to people here in a really accessible and familiar way. I started experimenting with it in my kitchen making a muffin mix, quick breads, and these accidentally alcoholic energy bites! One day, I put the whole teff grain into granola I was making as a last-minute decision and the flavor was so good. My sister and brother-in-law ate a pound of it in 2 days so I knew we were on to something. She was the one who first called it Teffola! She started buying it and encouraged me to follow this path with teff. 

I found a shared commercial kitchen in Plymouth in the fall of 2017, got my license, and started making it to sell to strangers. I will never forget when my younger brother came to help me bake one time and we made 30 bags of Teffola. I was overwhelmed with how many bags that was back then and just not sure how I’d sell all of them. From the beginning, the goal was to get into grocery stores while building an online e-commerce platform. We’ve slowly added things and changed others over the past 4 years like subscriptions of Teffola on the website, 2 more flavors, new kitchen space, etc. 

The details of how we got to where we are now aren’t as important as the mindset of how I go about solving problems. Take it one step at a time and ask as many questions as you possibly can. Then take imperfect action and go for it! 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Absolutely not. From the very beginning in our health inspection at the shared kitchen we ran into a struggle. The health inspector wasn’t going to let us source teff directly from our farm. We were fully within our right to do so. My dad is a lawyer as well as a farmer and found the policies that stated that we were able to do so. In the grand scheme of things, that was a very small obstacle that had a simple solution but it taught me a lot. 

From there, finances have been really tough. I started Teffola with $4,000 in November of 2017 and was working at a vegan restaurant full time. By June of 2018, I went part-time at the day job and then left in September 2018 to begin working on Teffola full time. Family helped out with some of my living expenses but looking back, I was living at poverty level for years. The business was barely covering expenses and I didn’t pay myself consistently until 2021. That kind of financial stress both business and personal was very difficult and felt never-ending. 

Another struggle that many entrepreneurs experience is the loneliness and isolation of building something from nothing. It’s tough doing something that maybe no one in your circle understands or can help with. That’s where finding other business owners who get it is invaluable. For the many bad days and fewer good days, you must have someone you can call who can relate to your situation. There are many networking groups out there but I’ve also met incredible people at conferences, trade shows, referrals, webinars, etc. You aren’t alone. 

Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Teffola, or teff granola, celebrates ancient grains by creating whole food, plant-based granola sourcing our star ingredient teff from our 7th generation family farm. We use grains and pseudograins like buckwheat, millet, and teff to create bold and delicious flavors with lots of nutrition. Teffola is our first line of products but we’re really excited about our product development which really centers on how we can use alternative grains in new but familiar ways. 

I’m really proud of the community we’ve built around Teffola. We started a Brand Ambassador program that grew 450+% in its first year. Working and involving others in our mission to celebrate these grains has led us to partner with amazing local companies like Zingerman’s and The Purple Beet. 

We are known for being the first company to use the whole grain teff in a product for store shelves, our excellent customer service (phone number on our packaging is my cell phone number!), and low sugar granola. We only use maple syrup as our sweetener and a very specific type at that! Our farm taps sugar maples and I am very particular about the flavor of maple syrup. 

All of our products are and will be vegan and gluten-free. You can find a list of the stores we’re stocked in on our website where you can also purchase directly from us! You’ll also see a lot more information about us and that Zingerman’s product partnership: www.eatteffola.com 

What matters most to you? Why?
The pursuit of staying bold & brave. There are so many roller coasters in life and business ownership; a million moments where I could have quit and moved on with my life. But even on the worst days of Teffola, I know without a doubt this is what I’ve been called to do. Staying bold & brave doesn’t always mean striking the power pose for a meeting or landing a big order or pitching an investor or those big moments. To me it means that on those dark days when nothing is working and you feel like it’s you against the world, you pull strength from nowhere and keep going. 

There have been countless positive impacts and life-changing moments that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t keep going. 

“It’s impossible”, said pride. 

“It’s risky”, said experience. 

“It’s pointless”, said reason. 

“Give it a try”, whispered the heart. 

-Unknown 

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Image Credits
Courtney Kent Photography

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