Ellie Tucker makes sugar-free granola bits and snack bars with her newest food venture, Joyful Spirit
Ellie Tucker has an entrepreneurial spirit and a love for creating healthy food from scratch. “Put me in a kitchen and I’m happiest innovating and creating products,” Tucker says. As a resident of Maine since age 4 (she grew up in Falmouth and lives in North Yarmouth), Tucker has made a number of forays in Maine’s food scene.
Tucker started her culinary career in 1987 by launching the famous D’Ellies cafe, known for its homemade soups and sandwiches, at Sugarloaf. “I went in and wanted to keep things simple. I made soups and became known for my chowder and homemade breads.” The name D’Ellies came from longtime SCORE mentor John Entwistle, who created the clever play on words. Seven years later, Tucker sold D’Ellies to a friend in 1995 and started a catering business, Supper at 6, in downtown Portland, which she owned and operated for seven more years. Throughout her career, Tucker has worked both inside and outside of the kitchen, but one thing has remained constant: her love of homemade, healthy and nutritious foods.
In August 2016, Tucker launched a new endeavor, Joyful Spirit, with a focus on making healthy, homemade snack foods. After attempting a completely sugar-free diet and finding it nearly impossible, Tucker challenged herself to create sugar-free, healthy and tasty food. She started making her own granola years ago because “all the granolas on the market are so sweet and I can’t eat sugar in the morning.” Her first Joyful Spirit product was her Box Cottage Granola, named after a friend’s historic Maine summer cottage resembling three stacked boxes. The granola has “a little bit of Maine honey as a sweetener” and is loaded with toasted oats, nuts and seeds.
Joyful Spirit’s beginning coincided with Tucker becoming one of the first members of Food Fork Lab in Portland, an incubator commercial kitchen and hub for small businesses making edible products, which opened in the summer of 2016. After making her granola solo out of her home for years, Tucker appreciated the culinary camaraderie. “One of the advantages of working at Fork Food Lab is there is a great peer group and people are more than willing to sample your product and give you feedback. In the first couple of iterations of the Coffee Bean Dellie Bar, my friend Nina at Fork told me to use a ‘pinch of salt’ and what a difference it made. We’re always bouncing ideas off each other,” she says. “One piece of advice I can give to anyone running a food business is that what tastes good to you might not taste good to others, so the more opinions you can get the better.”
Primarily self-taught, Tucker attributes her culinary prowess to her mother’s thriftiness in “cooking leftovers on top of leftovers” and always eating homemade, never packaged or processed foods. “I’m a believer in using fresh, healthy foods and that you don’t need a lot of ingredients to make a product taste good. One goal I have is for people to be able to actually taste the ingredients in my foods.”
After perfecting her granola recipe, Tucker decided to develop a snack product that could be easily transported and consumed on the go. While on a long run (Tucker is a former competitive long-distance runner), the idea for Box Cottage Granola Bits was born. “I realized the granola market was saturated. I said ‘I’ve got this great granola and what can I do with it that doesn’t involve sugar?’ So I played around and came up with the Box Cottage Granola Bits.” The bite-sized granola balls are packaged in a resealable plastic bag and come in four flavors: Box Cottage Original, Chocolate Coconut, Apple Cinnamon, and Nuts and Seeds.
The idea for her Dellie Bars came when Tucker was hiking and her friends “were pulling out these bars that were high in sugar and preservatives and didn’t have a long shelf life. I wanted something that didn’t have the granola in it and had dates and raisins and nuts.” Gluten-free and vegan, the Dellie Bars, including a Coconut Cardamom Almond and Coffee Bean Chocolate Hazelnut, made with whole coffee beans, hazelnut and unsweetened cocoa, contain no refined sugars or processed ingredients. None of her products do. “There are no flavors in any of my products that aren’t from real foods. For example, I use dried apple not ‘apple flavor’ and I make my own vanilla extract,” Tucker says.
One of Tucker’s biggest challenges has been marketing and distributing her products. While she has a website and Facebook and Instagram accounts, she relies on and prefers old fashioned in-person marketing, traveling with product samples to meet retailers face to face. Her products are currently sold at Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick, The Portland Food Co-op in Portland, Lois’ Naturals in Portland and Scarborough, Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport, The Farm Stand in South Portland, Clayton’s in Yarmouth, Better Living Center in Farmington, Slopeside Provisions at Sugarloaf and Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta. She also sells her products at the Falmouth and Yarmouth farmers markets.
Maine’s business licensing regulations also make life challenging, and she had to pass a national exam to be ServSafe certified (a requirement for every business) and must keep her certification updated every five years. “Everything has a regulation, which requires knowledge, time and money. There’s no way around it in terms of the legalities and regulations with food,” she says.
Packaging can also be a struggle. “When you’re a small business, packaging and labels are such an expensive part of your process unless you can buy in bulk or mass quantities,” she says. She created her own label, an image of a yellow sun coming up over an island and ocean, and has her labels printed in Portland at Express Copy and Dale Rand. “I’m always looking for eco-friendly packaging, which is hard to find and if it exists, it’s unaffordable.”
There has also been an unexpected change in her work space. Fork Food Lab, the space she’s worked out of for the last two years, will be closing at the end of September, so Tucker is exploring her options and researching other available shared commercial kitchens.
Despite the challenges, Tucker says that the community of women entrepreneurs in Maine is “absolutely wonderful and there’s a lot of support here.”
“Change is happening, though not overnight” for women entrepreneurs, she says. She finds that selling her products to women “is an asset,” while selling to men, particularly younger men, can be more difficult. She also says that older women entrepreneurs like herself “have a wealth of knowledge and experience we can offer, and I think slowly that’s being realized.”
Ultimately, Tucker stays motivated by challenging herself and “doing something that makes me feel good and makes others feel good. At the end of the day, if I can create a product that’s tasty and healthy that people enjoy, that makes me happy.”
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.