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Recipe for success

Two CAFNR students mix herbs and oats into a growing enterprise

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  • Story and photos by Randy Mertens
  • Published: May 15, 2009
Steven Adamski and Sarah Newsome

MU students Steven Adamski and Sarah Newsome prepare a batch of Herbal Oats granola bars, their own creation, in the kitchen of Columbia's Cafe Berlin.

Instead of sleeping in on Saturday mornings, Mizzou food science and nutrition majors Steven Adamski and Sarah Newsome rub elbows with shoppers in Columbia’s bustling grocery stores or farmers’ market.

“Have you heard about Herbal Oats?” they ask passers-by, proffering samples of their entrepreneurial brainchild: the nutritionally and environmentally sound Herbal Oats granola bars.

The small business is a big undertaking for the pair, who joined forces as dietetics students in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Inspired by the food courses they were taking, the two began to envision a profitable business. In less than a year, their idea went from concept to business incorporation to finished product distributed across Columbia, Mo.

Raising the bar

Adamski says he already was eating a lot of energy bars when he got the idea to begin making his own — with less sugar and tailored to his own tastes. He shared his creation with friends, who asked for more. "It began to look like a potential business," he says.

Adamski took advantage of the resources at MU to refine the recipe and build a business plan. Mizzou dieticians offered tips. Leslie Jett, executive chef and resident instructor at CAFNR's hotel and restaurant management program, gave advice. The University Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship contributed ideas to form a business. Ingolf Gruen, food-science associate professor and Adamski and Newsome's academic adviser, also helped with ideas about shelf life, water content and color.

With that, Adamski and Newsome founded Herbal Oats in March 2008. The official startup date was a few months later, as it took time for Newsome and Adamski to save the $180 for the business license.

Natural benefits

Herbal Oats granola bars

Made with organic ingredients and wrapped in biodegradable packaging, Herbal Oats granola bars come in four varieties. The undergraduate food-science students who created the company handle marketing and sales themselves.

Each granola bar is specifically designed to have a desired effect on the body, based on a proprietary blend of herbs used in each bar. Herbal Oats bars come in four varieties:

  • “Energy” with natural caffeine, black tea and apple walnut spice;
  • “Immunity” with Echinacea, blueberries and almonds;
  • “Focus” with gingko biloba and raspberry; and
  • “Strength” with protein and chocolate.

All bars are packaged in biodegradable wrappers that will degrade in compost in two or three months.

"We have all the nutritional information on each bar," Adamski says. "They are lower in calories and sugar than your typical bar and provide close to 11 percent of your daily intake of fiber of about three grams. Herbal Oats bars are also preservative-free and made from all-natural, organic ingredients."

Columbia's Cafe Berlin International donates use of the restaurant’s commercial kitchen, where Adamski and Newsome produce the granola bars. The pair makes and sells about 300 bars each week. So far, the Immunity and Strength versions have been the most popular sellers.

Feedback from the earliest customers indicated that the recipe hit the flavor mark perfectly but the texture needed additional work. So the pair embarked on a Goldilocks-esque round of trial and error. "It was initially considered too soft, then too hard," says Adamski. "We finally got the texture just right where everyone liked it."

The concept of using herbs to enhance human health isn’t new. In folk medicine, oats were used to treat nervous exhaustion, insomnia and “weakness of the nerves.” A tea made from oats was thought to be useful in rheumatic conditions and to treat water retention. A tincture of the green tops of oats was also used to help with withdrawal from tobacco addiction. Oats were often used in baths to treat insomnia and anxiety as well as a variety of skin conditions, including burns and eczema.

“Steven and I wanted to reintegrate the essential idea of eating functional foods,” says Newsome. “Eating foods that naturally provide your body with great nutrition and benefits is essential for healthy eating.”

Hitting the market

Once the young entrepreneurs had perfected the product and procured the appropriate licenses, trademark, insurance and inspections, they hit the streets.

Selling was a learning experience, Newsome says. The students had to quickly learn how to make professional and effective business presentations and negotiate with their new customers. They also had to develop a billing and bookkeeping system.

The bars are sold at a dozen Columbia locations, including coffee shops, health-food shops and grocery stores. Future expansion will center on helping the community, Newsome says; Adamski and Newsome plan to attend community events and spread the word about healthy eating and promoting locally grown foods.

“We can't branch out too much more because we are still in school and have to meet our educational deadlines," Adamski says.

Of course, the work has paid off in the academic realm. Adamski and Newsome have been recognized by Chancellor Brady Deaton for entrepreneurship, and Tom Payne, vice chancellor and dean of CAFNR, shared the bars with associates in Korea and Japan. Both young businesspeople were awarded special scholarships for their efforts.

The pair formed a limited-liability corporation to handle the legal aspects of the venture. Their 2008 tax return showed a modest $40 profit, but that figure included their start-up, materials and equipment costs. 2009, Newsome says, looks more promising. “This has been a learning experience for us. We now feel able to tackle bigger ideas,” she says.

Adamski is on track to graduate in May 2010 with a business minor and plans to attend graduate school. Newsome expects to graduate in December 2009, also with a business minor, and will pursue a master's degree in public health.

Both expect to reap the benefits of their real-world education.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012