Local granola fuels University of Iowa student-athletes

O'Brien's Own of Center Point sells about $2,700 of granola a week to Athletics Department

Rick O’Brien, co-owner of O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola, unloads his van as he delivers granola and granola bars at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Thursday, March 23, 2017. O’Brien uses special two-ounce packaging for this order, which is distributed out to athletics fueling stations across campus. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Rick O’Brien, co-owner of O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola, unloads his van as he delivers granola and granola bars at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Thursday, March 23, 2017. O’Brien uses special two-ounce packaging for this order, which is distributed out to athletics fueling stations across campus. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

O’Brien’s Own Gourmet Granola of Center Point scored a win when the University of Iowa Athletics Department chose the company to provide granola and protein bars for student-athlete snacks.

“I’m an avid Hawkeye and it’s awesome to tell folks about our contract and how we’re kind of fueling the Hawks,” said Rick O’Brien, who owns the company with his wife, Belinda. “We joke with our friends that the next time they win a national championship in any sport it will be because of us.”

Nicole White, the Athletics Department’s director of sports nutrition, called the O’Briens last fall after seeing their business profiled on a Corridor newscast. White, who started at the UI in September after working as a sports dietitian at the University of Oklahoma, said she likes to use local foods when possible.

She asked O’Brien’s Own to provide granola samples, which were chosen over other products.

“It’s a soft granola, which is easier to chew,” White said.

This helps student-athletes who may be struggling with pre-competition nerves, she explained.

The UI spends about $2,700 a week with O’Brien’s Own as part of a trial contract, the UI reported. The department has issued a Request for Proposals for a longer term granola contract, which the O’Briens may seek.

The O’Briens started their company in 2010 after batches of Belinda’s granola were gobbled up by Rick’s co-workers at Rockwell Collins, where he was employed at the time. They’ve expanded several times, recently moving their O’Brien’s Java House & Goodies to a Center Point strip mall to make more room for granola production at their headquarters, Rick O’Brien said.

The company has 15 granola flavors, but provides the UI Athletics Department with three top sellers — Blueberry Muffin, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Peanut Butter Cookie. O’Brien’s Own also supplies the UI with protein energy bars in flavors including 3X Honey & Oat and Chocolate Peanut Butter.

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Although the O’Briens already were selling granola at Hy-Vee, Fareway and other stores, they only had a 12-ounce bag, which was too big for student-athlete snacks.

The O’Briens worked with their distributor to develop a two-ounce bag that, so far, is used just for the Athletics Department.

“Rick made us individual-size bags, which are awesome,” White said.

The NCAA in 2014 approved measures allowing colleges to provide unlimited food and snacks to athletes in addition to their scholarship meal plans. The UI now has “fueling stations” in seven campus locations, including the Gerdin Athletic Learning Center, Carver-Hawkeye and the Jacobson Football Operations Building.

Rick delivers the granola each Thursday, tweaking the order to suit student-athletes’ tastes.

“The chocolate peanut butter protein bars were more well received by the student-athletes, so we increased that,” Belinda O’Brien said.

The O’Briens, fixtures at summer farmers markets in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, and occasionally Iowa City, plan to see if those customers like the two-ounce bag developed for the UI, Belinda said.

Convenience stores also may be a good market for the grab-and-go portion, she added.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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