Strategic Growth Drives O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola’s Success

by Jayne Armstrong, District Director, Iowa District SBA Office

In just seven years Rick and Belinda O’Brien have strategically grown their gourmet granola brand from a home-based business into a growing enterprise with an expanded production facility in Center Point. The idea started with a friend’s introduction to chocolate flavored granola. After making several batches at home and multiple attempts to perfect the recipe, the O’Briens realized they had a marketable product for a business.

Today O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola boasts 15 flavors, including Almighty Almond, O’Brien’s Joy, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Grandma’s Oatmeal Raisin, and even Pumpkin Spice, among others.  The company has built its reputation as “America’s Granola Farmers” based on the quality of its pure and natural ingredients.

Belinda’s previous business experience operating O’Brien’s Java House & Goodies, an ice cream and coffee shop in Center Point, was invaluable as the granola business grew. Some ideas are even transferrable. When Blue Bunny discontinued production of its chocolate caramel cashew ice cream flavor, Belinda baked over 30 batches of a similar granola before perfecting a new flavor for O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola.

A U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) guaranteed loan through Farmers State Bank enabled the O’Briens to relocate their retail business into the new Lewis Access Plaza and Center Point in 2016 and expand the existing production facility with new ovens and baking equipment. Thanks to the company’s popularity, they are already outgrowing the facility.

O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola’s success is based on the O’Briens’ strategy to scale up production without jumping off the cliff from the beginning. They first tested their products at a craft fair hosted by Rick’s former employer, Rockwell Collins, before expanding into the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids farmers markets. Its popularity and customer demands led them to expand into Iowa grocery stores, with one customer even taking an empty bag into a Hy-Vee store requesting the product on its shelves. Small business success wasn’t without its personal sacrifices though. The O’Briens downsized their house and sold a boat and a car to invest in their business dream.

“I gave away my mid-life crisis for this company,” said Rick O’Brien, co-owner of O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola. “We also get a lot of ideas on what to do and not do from watching the TV show Shark Tank.” Joking aside, the sacrifices are paying off for the family-owned business. Rick credits his 20-year military career for contributing to the business’ success. His training in leadership and operations, in addition to his experience working with processes at Rockwell Collins, helped him develop an efficient operations model with production and delivery schedules.  His academic training in the Air Force supports his public speaking and marketing skills. The family’s experience adapting to multiple deployments also helped the O’Briens’ transition to the independence of small business ownership.

Belinda ran the business full-time while Rick maintained his job at Rockwell Collins, spending his spare time with the business. After three years they felt the business was stable enough to take a big leap of faith for him to quit his job to focus on O’Brien’s Own Granola. It is an important lesson that many small business owners learn.

The O’Briens also found value in getting certified as a Targeted Small Business through the Iowa Economic Development Authority. The certification has helped them to position the company for further growth through state purchasing. They have worked with the Iowa Department of Human Services to expand their granola brand through the EBT card program.

The company is also developing a niche market selling its healthy products to sports teams at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. The opportunity has led to a specialty product line of granola bars and smaller portion packets.

“O’Brien’s is certified as both a woman-owned and service-disabled veteran-owned business through the Targeted Small Business (TSB) program, and not only qualifies for benefits for state procurement opportunities, but also helps state agencies meet their procurement goals for purchasing from TSB firms,” said Jill Lippincott, TSB project manager.  “It’s a win-win for both the state and the business.”

“We are very excited to be a certified business in the State of Iowa’s Targeted Small Business Program and look forward to the opportunities certification in this program can bring,” said Rick and Belinda O’Brien, owners of O’Brien’s Own Granola.  Hard work and perseverance are the heart and soul of small business success. No one knows this better than Belinda and Rick O’Brien, who have positioned O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola as a sustainable Iowa small business with high growth potential.

OSD CEO & Executive Director Glenn Banton is an appointed member of the Advisory Committee on Veteran Business Affairs (ACVBA) providing an independent source of advice and policy recommendations to the SBA administrator, SBA associate administrator for the Office of Veterans Business Development, Congress, the President and other U.S. policymakers on programs affecting veteran-owned small business from all segments of American society.