Richard Lee, Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010

What started as a homemade family gift for friends and co-workers has become a sought-after healthy snack for shoppers throughout the Northeast. The founder of Ola! O’ So Natural granola said she hopes her new Norwalk kitchen will be what she needs to meet the growing demand for her product.

Since bringing Ola! to the market in last year, Redding resident Dina Houser has assembled an impressive portfolio of grocers that offer her products, despite opening her business during an economic downturn.

Norwalk-based Stew Leonard’s, as well as Whole Foods, Fairway Markets, various IGA stores and independent merchants throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York state have Ola! on their shelves.

“It’s hard work and perseverance,” said Houser, co-owner of DK Design Partners in Redding with her husband, Kurt Houser. “Being a branding and design firm, we have the knowledge of how to market and brand a product — in-store demos, events, local tastings. We try to get our products into as many mouths as possible. We have a great message. It’s a universal `hello.’ “

Soon after starting her business, Houser brought her granola to the New York Botanical Gardens’ “Edible Gardens” series last year, and it was there that Ola received a major boost when it was discovered by associates of food personality Rachel Ray, who named it a “Snack of the Day” on her TV show.

As Houser’s marketing efforts showed results, the need for a larger kitchen became obvious, resulting in a move from Westport to a 2,700-square-foot leased facility on Woodward Avenue in Norwalk, owned by Baywater Properties. She declined to disclose the number of Ola employees, but she said she was heartened by the welcome she received from
Norwalk officials.

Having that extra production capacity is crucial for a product’s success if it starts flying off the shelves, said Craig Johnson, president of Custom Growth Partners, a New Canaan-based retail consultancy. “You have to scale rapidly and cost-effectively if it takes off,” said Johnson, who is impressed by the distribution that Ola has achieved in such a short time. Having Stew Leonard’s as a client is important because success at that level can lead to entry into larger chains, he said. But retaining that distribution level is the challenge, Johnson said, because there are thousands of new grocery products vying for shelf space and grocery chains continually looking for the latest products.“If you get in there, and the stuff isn’t moving, you’re out,” he said.

Based on his experience with Ola, Tad Diesel, Norwalk director of marketing and economic development, said he doesn’t believe Houser will have that problem.“There are two packs of Ola in my desk drawer right now,” said Diesel, who has seen several food-related companies grow in Norwalk, citing Michelle’s Pies, Knipschildt Chocolates, Galaxy Cookies and Yumnuts Naturals as examples. “What you have are these small cuisine companies that may be small in size but their reputations are huge.”

One Norwalk company, Bear Naked, a maker of granola cereals, hit the jackpot in 2007 when it was bought by the Kellogg Co. after several years of strong growth.