Ryan Doran for the Fairfield County Business Journal | Mar-12-10, 06:30 PM |
Invention is often born of necessity and sometimes, economic pressure and a scoop of granola.
Begun just a year ago in a kitchen in Redding, Ola! has found its way to shelves around the Northeast and onto food television. Kurt and Dina Houser, are the principals of DK Design Partners which they founded together 10 years ago. Both seasoned veterans of the graphic and branding design world, they moved to Redding from New York City four years ago to allow their growing family to have a more archetypal suburban life.
“Last year the recession hit and everything just bombed, it affected our business tremendously,” Dina said. “Our design business has always allowed us to be part of a start-to-finish process. We’ve done inception, naming, all the way through to a finished product for others before. Being on that side we totally understood that process and the importance of having a strong brand.”
As clients’ advertising budgets dried up, so did a dependable flow of work coming to DK Design Partners.
“That was the catalyst,” Dina said. “I’ve made this granola for years and my mom made it for me.”
The recipe had begun to evolve when she began giving jars of the mix to DK clients as gifts.“After many years of wine and the usual gifts, you don’t stand out,” she said.
The personal gifts were met with praise, expanding an idea to market the granola. In February 2009, in the midst of the frustrating and straining business climate, Dina finally decided it would be the time to build the granola brand.
“It was out of necessity. I love our design business and I love being a designer; but you rely on others businesses to sustain you. I really wanted to create something that was self-sustaining. Obviously the challenge was starting this during a really difficult time. But I think that was also in our favor because it was something new and fresh and something that’s under $10 that people can purchase without feeling guilty.”
Through the years working in branding, the Housers saw how so often a good idea could be focus-grouped so much that it loses itself.
“There is an importance to having different perspectives, but at the end of the day you have to go with your gut,” Dina said.The naming process was left to the best focus group of them all, the Housers’ three sons.“They rhymed everything with granola, and I finally thought, ola, of course, perfect,” she said. “It captures people’s attention and communicates to people what we’re about, before they even know what we have. We hit the ground running; we were in stores by the middle of March.”
Ola! first found shelf space at Ancona’s Market in Ridgefield and has since made it to hundreds of stores throughout Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. “Ancona’s actually contacted us because they’re all about local products,” Dina said. “Our mission is really about healthy, sustaining, convenient food.”
Ola! currently produces two flavors of granola, vanilla almond and cranberry orange pecan.
“We get so many emails and calls from moms saying that they and their kids love it, they devour bags,” Dina said. “Granola still is a fairly small category. A lot of the products that are out there are loaded with calories fat and sugar. Our point of difference is that we use pure maple syrup as our only sweetener.”
According to the Department of Health, pure maple syrup is an excellent source of manganese and a good source of zinc, both important to energy production and antioxidant defenses.
Dina and Kurt said they have actively paced themselves in introducing their product into stores, so as to allow for relationships and give the opportunity to spread the story of their product.
Ola! Now has shelf space at area Whole Foods Markets.
“It does reach a broader audience and they do have that esteem. We’ve gone in directly to each store buyer; our approach was to go in for our own growth and learning individually. You can have a product and get it in as many stores and shelves as you want, but if there’s not the support and the backing, it’s just going to sit on the shelf.”
Dina has encouraged customers to use the granola in baking and as part of other recipes and has even listed customer recipes using Ola! on the company website.
“What we’ve found is that by growing at our own pace, understanding the market and being able to be in the stores to support it once it’s there, we’re able to have those one-on-ones with customers, educate them and tell our story.”
Whole Foods does a great job of realizing the appeal and importance of supporting local foods and brands, she said.
Whole Foods, which has locations in Westport, Greenwich, Milford and Darien, has been at the center of the locally grown-and-made movement across the country. In 2007, the company went as far as to provide up to $10 million in low-interest loans to local producers.
“Whole Foods is really encouraging,” Dina said. “They have demo specialists and you simply arrange a schedule with them.” Ola! has just this month gained space at Norwalk-headquartered Stew Leonard’s. Ola! is the first granola company to be accepted into the store since Darien-founded Bear Naked, now owned by Kashi Co., a subsidiary of the Kellogg Co.
Kurt said Fairfield County has offered a demographic that has been very accepting of what Ola! is trying to do.
“They understand the value,” Kurt said. “So many people have the attitude of ‘good for you guys,’ especially during recession time it’s encouraging to others to be out there.”
Dina said being there to present their product at stores and at events has allowed the brand to be recognized and found by people like Rachel Ray, a celebrity chef and host of three Food Network television programs, who chose them as “snack of the day” for her show after finding them at their display at the Botanical Gardens.
Dina said granola is the first of many products under the Ola! Foods brand that they hope to launch.