The first day I met Jim Matson, he took me to a supermarket and we watched housewives buying things. It was a huge store, about the size of a football field, and very modern, with thousands upon thousands of neatly arrayed products. Jim moved up and down the aisles, noting the new products and the changes in the old ones, pausing occasionally to read a label.
As we turned down the cereal aisle, we could see the distinctive sepia tones of Heartland Natural Cereal. Five years old, it still stood out in a sea of explosive colors, of Lucky Charms and Choculas and Sugar Frosted Flakes. “There it is,” Jim said, a bit wistfully. Later he’d say that Heartland was the most exciting thing he’d done in his life, but now he just shook his head and continued down the aisle.
Jim is an executive with Pet Incorporated of St. Louis, which used to call itself the Pet Milk Company. He invents new products for a living. When he visits a supermarket, it is serious business. Usually he just wants to check out the competition, to see what’s new. Sometimes, though, he can look down a row of products and see what’s missing; sometimes he can visualize a new product waiting to be born. Moments like that make his job fun, but they don’t come very often.
While it would be a bit presumptuous to call Jim Matson the father of modern granola, he is probably the person most responsible for bringing it to your breakfast table. In 1972, he invented the first corporate granola, Heartland Natural Cereal—a major cultural event in the history of this decade.
The corporate takeover of granola was a pivotal moment in the downward spiral of the late, lamented counterculture. (Another key moment was when long hair became the “dry look,” but that seemed more abstract.) I decided to find out exactly how the big cereal manufacturers had taken the plunge. But no one at any of the companies would own up to it; the public relations people always said the granola decision was made by groups of executives over a long period of time—until I spoke with Pet. The public relations department sent me directly to Jim Matson, who said that granola was his idea and he was proud of it.
Unlike many executives at Pet, who favor doubleknits and flashy patterned clothes, Jim dresses traditionally: solid colors, conservative striped ties, button-down shirts. He is obviously a man of some taste. At the age of forty-two, he is a blond man turning gray; an active man—mountaineer, backpacker, outdoor type—moving toward chunkiness. When he speaks, he forces the words very precisely through his nose while barely moving his lips, and he would seem very official indeed if it weren’t for a pair of playful blond eyebrows which preside over a serious face that often seems a bit flushed. Like his face, Jim is sometimes playful and sometimes official; he enjoys being unpredictable. His three favorite books are The Little Prince, Catch 22 and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
After our visit to the supermarket that first day, we went to a White Castle, bought some greasy hamburgers, onion rings, french fries and Cokes, and went to the St. Louis botanical gardens where Jim began to tell me about his early days at Pet.
He remembered July 4th weekend, 1971. He was driving to St. Louis from Minneapolis; his wife and four daughters were to join him later. It was a strange time. A new job, a new city and the news of the Pentagon Papers all over the radio. The government had been lying all along. The protesters had been right. It was an event, Jim realized, with implications that eventually would reach all the way to the supermarket shelves. It was the sort of situation he liked to roll around in his mind, examining all the angles . . . but he was preoccupied by more immediate matters that weekend.
Somewhere along the road, Jim stopped at a gas station and bought an interesting pack of Lifesavers, a new kind — tropical flavored, tart and tangy. A crazy idea began to take hold: Pet had a venerable diet drink called Sego that was starting to lose ground to the new powdered diet mixes. What if they jazzed up Sego with tropical flavors? He was so excited that he decided to forego the usual market testing that would have shown him the product was an unequivocal bomb.
Tropical Sego and Spoon-Up (a diet pudding that became a moderate success) were Jim’s two bright hopes as he began to explore his new home that summer. On occasion he would walk through downtown St. Louis, which, though not exactly vibrant, was diverse enough in 1971 to support a small health food store, much to Jim’s surprise.