Grainful recently expanded its Steel Cut Meal lineup with three additional flavors: Thai Curry, Cheddar Broccoli, and Tuscan Bean & Kale.

ITHACA, N.Y. — Consumers today may have a complex relationship with carbohydrates, but the co-founder and chef behind Grainful believes her brand will resonate. Launched in 2013, the New York-based startup manufactures savory frozen entrees and dry side dish mixes featuring steel-cut oats as the star ingredient.

“We don’t feel threatened at all by the fact that there’s a Paleo diet out there and people are looking to not eat grains,” Jeannine Sacco told Food Business News. “We’re here. We’re going to stand by our product.”

Grainful recasts oatmeal as a risotto-like base for such savory toppings as slow-simmered porcini mushrooms and chicken, mild curry with organic coconut milk and tofu, and kidney and garbanzo beans with Italian spices and chopped kale. The insight to bring a breakfast staple to the dinner table came from Ms. Sacco’s home kitchen.

“I was at home making jambalaya, and I didn’t have any rice, but I had tons of steel-cut oats and thought, ‘Huh, I wonder if I can use this,’” she said. “I had this fascination with steel-cut oats for a while and felt it was an underutilized grain that has so many great health benefits. Compared to quinoa, I would say it’s much more durable and you can do a lot of different things with it.”

Today, Grainful products are sold in more than 600 stores, including Wegmans and ShopRite. Ms. Sacco expects the company to more than triple its distribution next year.

Jeannine Sacco, chef and co-founder of Grainful

“We’ve got plans to be in over 2,000 stores by the end of 2016, and I think at the rate we’re going we may actually go further than that,” she said. “My gut feeling is once we get out to the Midwest and the West, I think our product is going to take off.”

Read on for more of Ms. Sacco’s business insights, plus the challenges of marketing an unfamiliar product concept to consumers.

Food Business News: What inspired the creation of Grainful?

Jeannine Sacco: I was working with our president from Grainful (Jan Pajerski) on a couple of different projects. We were working on a breakfast line, but we realized breakfast product lines are so difficult to break that barrier because if the customer doesn’t eat breakfast, it’s going to be really hard to change that habit, and if they don’t eat an oatmeal product for breakfast, it’s going to be even harder.

We basically were just like, “Okay, how can we utilize steel-cut oats and be different?” I came in with the jambalaya, everybody tried it and thought we may be onto something. I spent days and hours in the test kitchen basically coming up with different recipes.

The breakfast industry is difficult, but the frozen dinner industry is even more difficult. I think we had a leg up because we had such a unique product and nobody else was doing it. So we were able to catch the attention of buyers and say, “We are different because we’re using steel-cut oats as a base, we have really clean ingredients and basically it’s like us cooking on our stovetops and freezing it and serving it to you for dinner.” And the food buyers loved it. 

Were you concerned the oatmeal-for-dinner concept may be a hard sell for consumers?

Ms. Sacco: Definitely. We knew there would have to be a ton of education for the consumer. We demoed this product day after day in our test market because we knew if we didn’t get the product into people’s mouths … the product wasn’t going to sell itself off the shelf.

The thing is, you can get them to try it, but they’ve got to like it. It has to taste good. You can check off all these boxes: non-G.M.O., organic, clean ingredients, no MSG … but the bottom line is if it doesn’t taste good, they’re not going to buy it.

Earlier this year, you launched a brand extension with Steel Cut Sides. What drove the insight to develop that product line?

Ms. Sacco: The sides are like a dry rice. It’s not a ready-to-eat. There is cooking required for it. We did it because a lot of people were asking us, “How can we make this ourselves?” or “I don’t make frozen entrees for my family.” So many people were asking us for recipes, and there were a lot of people in the camping community who wanted it in a dry form to bring camping and add whatever meat they want. We needed a brand extension, and that seemed to make the most sense.

Earlier this year, Grainful launched a line of Steel Cut Sides.

When I went into the R.&D. kitchen, I had 14 side dishes that I developed, and it came down to four. It was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work.

How did you whittle down 14 recipes to 4?

Ms. Sacco: We have four stages in our product development process. The first stage is between me and our operations manager. Can we source the ingredients? Will it be cost effective? Is it going to meet our nutritional requirements internally? That right off the bat can knock out quite a few dishes very quickly.

The second stage is, does everybody like it? Does it taste good? What tweaks do we need to make it? And it’s definitely been a learning process.

Once we’re all in agreement that this is a good product and we like it … then we’ll go into stage three, which is the test market. We’ll test it and get data from customers. We’ll demo the product.

The fourth stage is making it market ready, which is basically getting our U.S.D.A. approval and having entrees in our pipeline. What we found is if we have products in the pipeline that are ready to go and on demand, when a retailer comes to us and says, “You’ve been selling very well in the last six months, and we want to give you another shelf in the store,” within two or three weeks we can turn it around and have it out in the market. That was the whole plan behind putting this four-stage process together, so we’re not caught saying we don’t have anything developed. They’re not going to hold on to an empty shelf for us, and to get an extra shelf in the retail store … you’ve got to take advantage of that, for sure.

What are your nutritional criteria?

Ms. Sacco: We’re very conscientious of the amount of sodium that goes into an entree. We revised our first four entrees to get the sodium down, and now going forward with new flavors, we’re trying to keep it below 500 mg.

The interesting thing is, right now I’m developing an Asian flavor, and I’m using a low-sodium soy sauce, and even still, I’m way up over 500 mg … but the product tastes good, and if we reduced the soy sauce, the product isn’t going to taste good. So at what point do we say we are not going to make Asian dishes with soy sauce in it because the sodium is higher?

I think the key thing that is going to answer that question is putting it in the test market and seeing if people are buying it. With the first four entrees people commented about the sodium, but we were still selling the product.

You have a very specific ingredient-driven brand. Does that limit your innovation?

Ms. Sacco: When we first came up with our name for the company, there were names that just meant oats. Avena was one of the names that we came up with, which is the scientific name for oats. A lot of us argued that it sounded like it was a hair product.

Grainful is conscientious about the amount of sodium in its entrees.

When we came up with the name Grainful, we had in mind we would have the flexibility to get into other grains down the road. I would say it’s not something we’re looking to do in the next 16-18 months just yet. Because we’re a new company, we’re not completely national right now, and we’re still convincing people of steel-cut oats for dinner, I don’t think it makes sense for us to all of a sudden have to go out and reeducate people about a brand new grain that may or may not be for dinner.

I will say we are definitely working on brand extensions with steel-cut oats. We have a huge list of products in mind that are in the very early stages. We’ll whittle that list down to probably one. We’ve got ideas for an instant product you could just add to hot water and it’s ready to go, or even shelf-stable products.

We’re not looking into developing any of that just yet because we really got to get out nationwide and really see if we are going to sink or swim with what we have right now with the frozen entrees and steel-cut sides.

Are you concerned about the emergence of grain-free diets?

Ms. Sacco: It’s not at the forefront of our daily conversations because we know that the product is full of complex carbohydrates, and those aren’t bad for you. And there’s always going to be some new trend coming around, but that doesn’t mean that 99% of consumers are jumping on that bandwagon.

Usually only 5% of your consumers are your brand-loyal ones that you really want to focus on. Those tend not to jump on some trend bandwagon and are educated and knowledgeable enough about what you’re offering, and that’s why they love you.