Interview with Dina Houser: Founder + President of Ola! Foods

The Ola! Granola Story

It was a “Family Favorite” even before she had a family of her own. Growing up in a family of eight, Dina Houser enjoyed her mom’s healthy, homemade, great-tasting granola — the same satisfying recipe she recreated as a working mother of three young boys. Carefully fine-tuning her family’s recipe - using whole grains, nuts, and pure maple syrup - Dina’s hand-baked granola quickly became everyone’s favorite ready-to-go breakfast, snack and topping.

Running a design business with her husband, Dina would bake special blends to gift, “sharing the love” with their clients and friends. After years of being urged to make her granola available to food lovers everywhere, her son’s second grade teacher asked Dina where he could purchase it. It was then she decided to fulfill her dream of making it for the world to enjoy. Ola! was born.

With the help and support of family, friends, neighbors and the community, Ola! Foods was launched on Earth Day in 2009. Soon, the entire household got involved, from packing boxes to attending local events and farmers markets. Dina’s boys even helped come up with the name Ola! around their kitchen table, eager to say hello to everyone who likes healthy and yummy.

Dina’s passion for quality and taste shines through in all aspects of Ola’s business. Since its inception, the company has achieved significant milestones and praise and now has an extended family of bakers in its state-of-the-art Connecticut kitchens.

Today, families everywhere are saying “Ola!” to our Happy Good for You Energy Food®!

Sarah Velasco: Can you tell us about yourself ? How did you get started?
Dina Houser: Sure! I live in Redding, CT with my husband Kurt of over 20 years and my three beautiful boys who are 15, 13, and 10. I am a graphic designer by trade and was a partner with my husband in our design business prior to launching Ola! Granola. I had made granola for many years and gave it to people as gifts. They loved it and always encouraged me to sell it but the timing never seemed right, being so busy with my business and raising three young boys. Timing is everything, right? So when the recession hit, I figured it was now or never. That was the catalyst in starting my own brand, Ola! Foods five years ago.
I also love to cook so having a passion for food has certainly helped me in this endeavor. I often tell people that when I was deciding my path in life, I was torn between becoming a designer, chef or a psychologist. I now joke that I feel I am using these three things everyday beginning this new chapter in my life with Ola!

Sarah Velasco: What does an average day look like for you? 
Dina Houser: My day typically starts at 5am during the week (6:30am weekends) to do some form of exercise. I know, it’s early and dark and cold in winter months, but I’ve found this is the only time I can fit it into my schedule! I either walk for 2-3 miles with my dog Spencer, or I jump on my spinning bike for an hour or so. It’s a nice quiet time for myself and I need exercise for my physical and mental health. Over the course of the next two hours, and the help of my husband, I get my three kids off to school and myself out the door by 8 and head to Ola’s facility. Our offices, kitchen production area and warehouse are all housed under one roof, so the day is spent working very closely with my office and operations managers, and our sales and marketing team. My days are spent on the many layers that building a brand entails as well as dealing with the manufacturing end of things. I have a good 40 minute drive home and then it’s dinner on the table (our family always sits down for dinner together), managing the kids afterschool schedules and catching up on work later in the evening. I don’t drink coffee but I love having something hot to drink mainly in the colder months, so I’m continuously drinking an herbal or green tea throughout the day and night. It’s my little luxury that I so enjoy. Then it starts all over again the next day!

Sarah Velasco: Can you tell readers about Ola Foods? How did that begin?
Dina Houser: When I finally decided to bring my granola recipe to market, I knew the importance of also creating a brand as well as a product line. I decided to initially launch on Earth Day 2009 with two flavors, Vanilla Almond and Cranberry Orange Pecan and every aspect was hand done in very small stages. I had a big support group of friends and family, which was a tremendous help!
As I mentioned prior, in my design business, naming other company’s brands and taking a project from a concept to a finished product was our expertise. So once I decided to bring my family’s granola recipe to market, I wanted a name that conveyed exactly what our product was- fun, family friendly and approachable, hence Ola! (btw this stemmed from the last three letters in the word granola).
In the early days, our entire family’s focus and attention was on Ola! and everybody pitched in where they were needed. I’m proud and happy to teach my boys good life skills and demonstrate to them how something is created and the process that unfolds. Now five years later, my children are truly able to see that by working hard at something you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. It may not be easy, but you need to learn to solve those obstacles along the way.

Sarah Velasco: What is your mission at Ola Foods?
Dina Houser: Bringing 100% Natural, Healthy, Pure & Simple food products to people everywhere while doing good.
I have a special line that I tell my kids every day before they leave for school which is: Be Kind. Do your best. And have fun. I think this motto is something for us to all live by.

Sarah Velasco: What types of products do you carry?
Dina Houser: One that families love and embrace! We have four delicious flavors of granola that meets the need of each family member. Moms tend to gravitate towards our Vanilla Almond, which uses whole nuts and pure vanilla –the perfect satisfying energy food. Dads in particular seem to love our Cranberry Orange Pecan-crunchy clusters of oats, pecans and cranberries infused with orange, cinnamon and real maple syrup. Our newest flavor Chocolate Banana Chip and our No Nut Vanilla are great for kids. These flavors do not contain nuts so it’s a good choice if consumers have allergy concerns or other dietary restrictions.

Sarah Velasco: Are your products natural or gluten-free? 
Dina Houser: Ola! is 100% natural, pure and simple handbaked granola. All our recipes have 16g or more of whole grains, are gluten free, Non-GMO verified, Vegan, Kosher and do not contain any soy, dairy or added oils. Our raw ingredients are sourced through natural channels and because we make everything in small batches we can really control the quality of our product.

Sarah Velasco: Are there common misconceptions about granola? 
Dina Houser: Yes! I tell new customers all the time that not all granolas are created equally. So many granolas are loaded with sugars and are super high in calories, sodium and fat, are overly sweetened, or they have no flavor whatsoever. When I first started Ola! and began trying some other brands, I was horrified at what was on the shelf. I actually had to spit out some of the ones I tried! Ola! Granoa has only 100 calories per serving along with other terrific nutritionals, such as lower fat, sugar and sodium so you can enjoy it without any guilt and actually feel good about eating it. We only use pure maple syrup and blue agave nectar, which are wonderful natural sweeteners and have a very low glycemic index. Since these sweeteners tend to not spike and elevate your blood sugar, Ola! makes a perfect snack for kids and is especially good for diabetics and folks that are active.

Sarah Velasco: Can you tell us a little bit about BeFoundation? 
Dina Houser: BeFoundation is a private, family foundation dedicated to transforming the lives and communities of disadvantaged children and youth in Connecticut that my partner Greg began a few years back. Ola! Foods has pledged all of its net profits to BeFoundation’s mission of supporting sustained and dramatic improvement in educational outcomes and wellness initiatives. Since Ola!’s inception, our goal was to have a charitable component linked to our company. Be is the ideal partner, as the common core of both companies is about children and families. At Ola! Foods, our mission is to always make a product that kid’s, in addition to their parents, will love and embrace. Every bite helps!

Sarah Velasco:  Can you tell readers two of your favorite recipes? 
Dina Houser: As I mentioned, I am a big fan of creating all kind of foods for my family and friends. I have LOTS of different cookbooks and tend to use them as inspiration for cooking a variety of dishes, and tend to mix it up depending on my taste buds. If I do follow a recipe, I may change it up the next time based on how it turned out and my preferences. I love wild salmon and will make a glaze of apricot preserves with Dijon mustard and thyme that I place on the fish towards the end of cooking under the broiler for a minute or so. I’ll usually serve this with a cousous that I’ll add red onion, reconstituted raisins in orange juice, pine nuts and some red peppers after a quick saute. I definitely lean towards those sweet and savory flavors that is found in Moroccan foods.
Also, we always tell our customers that Ola! Granola can be used in so many different recipes too. The different flavors add so much to breakfast, lunch, desserts and snack dishes. Mix in pancake batter, top a salad, toss into stuffings and our granola is a great addition to just about any kind of dessert recipe. Try melting dark chocolate and dip strawberries (or any kind of fruit of choice) sprinkle Ola! Granola Vanilla Almond on top. Yum!

Sarah Velasco: Where can readers find Ola Foods products? 
Dina Houser: Currently, Ola! Granola is primarily sold in stores along the East Coast and can be found in the granola/cereal isle or natural section of your grocery store in such stores as Stop&Shop, Giant, Whole Foods, Shaws, Shoppers, and Hannaford’s. We are also in select stores across the US that include TJ Maxx, HomeGoods, and Marshalls. This is great since it gives folks the opportunity to try our product in various parts of the country. This year we are rolling out nationally, so please look for us in your stores soon! We also offer all of our products on our website, www.olafoods.com including our 1oz Grab-n-Go Singles, bulk bags, gift jars, Ola! t-shirts and totes. Our website also offers a store locator, so simply put in your zip code to find a store near you. Also, we would be happy to offer your readers a promo code (SV2014) for free shipping on any online orders. We know once they try our granola, they’ll be hooked!