By: Amy Kuhlers, Iowa Economic Development Authority
Entrepreneur: Rick O'Brien
Founder, O'Brien's Own Granola
O'Brien's Own Granola.
Center Point, IA
This month’s entrepreneur spotlight takes us to Center Point, IA where an old Casey’s building saw new life as the home of O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola and O’Brien’s Java House & Goodies along with also being part of the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Targeted Small Business (TSB) program.
The TSB program caters to women, individuals with minority status, service-connected disabled veterans, and individuals with disabilities overcome some of the hurdles to start or grow a small business in Iowa. Mr. O’Brien spent 20 years in active duty for the U.S. Air Force before retiring in May 2007. At that point, he beginning to work at Rockwell Collins before resigning six years later to focus 100% on his company that he founded with his wife, Belinda.
What made you decide to launch O’Brien’s Own Granola?
Actually an accidental challenge to Belinda. I had a favorite national brand of granola that I was introduced to by our Air Force friends while visiting them in Texas. When we returned to Iowa the granola they introduced was not on the shelves at the Hy-Vee stores where we shopped. I asked the stores to bring them in so I could purchase it, which they did. Belinda at that time said she could make me some granola that I would like and I foolishly said “leave it to the professionals’ honey.”
My comment “inspired” her to whip up a batch while I was at work. When I got home I tried her experiment batch of granola and it was 10 times better than the brand our friends introduced us to in Texas. She made some samples for me to take to work to gather input on taste and texture. Everyone that sampled it wanted to immediately buy some so I knew at that point we might be on to something. I quickly sourced some packaging that we could retail our granola into friends, co-workers, and customers at local craft fairs and markets. After selling hundreds of bags at one local craft fair I decided to approach the store manager at a local Hy-Vee to see if they would give us some shelf space to retail our granola. He did and sales started to boom.
Did you jump into operations full time at the start, or how did you make the decision to transition to full-time production and sales?
Belinda and I both worked the company part time in the beginning but after a few months, it was apparent that Belinda would need to leave her job at the Center Point School District to concentrate her time and efforts on the granola business. After we were wholesaling to a handful of Hy-Vee and Fareway stores the decision became easier. In the meantime, I remained at Rockwell Collins while continuing to grow the business working it part time.
Many small businesses start in a garage, basement or in your case, the kitchen. Is this how you started out and if so, can you share how you’ve managed the growth from home to production/retail facility?
Yes, in the beginning, we were baking granola in the kitchen in our home. As soon as we began to wholesale our granola, the state required a commercial kitchen for our manufacturing processes. I then converted our basement into a licensed commercial facility which allowed for the immediate growth. We knew if the company continued to grow at that pace we would soon need a larger, commercial building for our manufacturing. We began looking for commercial properties in Center Point and found our current location for sale. It was the old Casey’s building and we quickly jumped at the opportunity. We were now a fully commercial facility and it was nice to have part of our home back!
Your granola is sold online, at farmer’s markets and your retail and other retail outlets. Can you share some marketing tips on obtaining shelf space at outlets like Hy-Vee?
Local grocery stores in Iowa, for the most part, are very friendly with Iowa products. Do your homework first and it makes the process much easier. Make sure you are fully licensed and insured and your packaging meets the FDA guidelines. It also helps to establish a customer base by engaging in local farmer’s markets and craft fairs. It also helps if current customers approach the store and request your product. We do become vendors in many stores every year from customer requests.
Have you grown your business grass-roots by yourselves or have you tapped into outside resources for assistance?
We have been primarily a grass-roots business by beating the streets and becoming vendors in multiple farmer’s markets and craft fairs. We have spent very little the first six years in advertising and marketing outside of social media and community events.
Businesses can evolve, do you have any plans for ‘what’s next’?
We feel extremely blessed and humbled with the growth of our business. We do have a lofty goal of going national and trying out for “Shark Tank” one day. If not, we would completely be satisfied just being a great regional company that also fulfills online orders from all over the U.S. We love to hear customers say that our granola is the best they’ve ever tasted.
Any advice on starting a business that you’d like to share with readers?
Do your homework upfront and just go for it. There will always be risk but if you believe in your product and do the necessary work, it can be successful. Always be thinking ahead and feel free to ask the questions “what if…”. Having a plan doesn’t always match up with what life throws at you so make the best decision at that time with the information you have but keep moving forward.