Michigan woman creates new breakfast option

By Jodee Taylor

Traverse City Record-Eagle.

TRAVERSE CITY (AP) -- Like any busy working mother, Marcia Wittig wanted shortcuts. So one morning, she poured her coffee into her oatmeal. Seven years later, BolaJoe was born. (Get it? Bowl of Joe.)

The locally produced "Hearty Oatmeal with a Coffee Kick" is now for sale around the state, but it didn't come without some labor pains.

"It was surprising how long it took to get to market," said Wittig, 58. "We thought three to four months, but it was about 1 1/ 2 years."

Wittig and her son Gary, 28, of Williamsburg, are the family business' main employees. Daughter Michelle Lawrence helps with some downstate distribution. BolaJoe comes together in rented commercial kitchen space near Traverse City.

BolaJoe is available in Cafe Mocha flavor, with a half-cup of coffee in each serving, rolled oats and a hint of cocoa. The ingredients, including the packaging, are organic and fair trade, Marcia Wittig said.

"The cocoa powder turns it into a taste like a no-bake cookie with coffee undertones," Gary Wittig said.

During a taste test with fourth-and fifth-graders -- not the usual target market, but an enthusiastic crowd -- BolaJoe got a thumbs-up.

"I think it tastes good. It's different than other oatmeal I eat," said Lillian Kinker, 10, of Northport. Brett Dyer, 11, of Northport, who doesn't like oatmeal or coffee, said, "I like this stuff. I taste a little chocolate." Marcia Wittig said some of the most positive feedback has come from personal trainers and fitness clubs. Others like the portability of the single-serving container, which only needs a little water and a microwave to turn it into a meal or snack.

"People like that it's a mobile product," Marcia Wittig said. "It's nice to have an alternative to fast food."

Karl Webber, who works in the grocery department at Oryana Natural Foods Market, said, "It could be the next big thing.

"I just sold some to a woman who was going to a hotel. She'd already heard the food was terrible there."

Webber said the store sold about 50 packages in a week or 10 days.

The Wittigs worked with Michigan State University's Product Center for Agricultural and Natural Resources to get help as a start-up business. The service is free to "small-scale entrepreneurs" in Michigan, said Matt Birbeck, the liaison who worked with the Wittigs, although some services, like calculating nutritional information and bar coding, require fees.

BolaJoe won Best Innovative Business Idea in 2010 at the Product Center's Making It in Michigan Conference.

BolaJoe has a suggested retail price of $1.99.

At Oleson's stores, it's stocked in the local foods display; other stores stock it with other oatmeal products.

Published: Thu, Mar 24, 2011