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Oregon District Office
601 SW Second Avenue Suite 950
Portland, OR 97204
United States
Phone: 503-326-2682
Fax: 503-326-2808
Hours of Operation:
Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM

What’s More Organic Than Granola?

Debi Sommars knows all about organic growth.

Her business, Portland-based Sommars Ovens, has literally grown one customer at a time. Her product, organic granola, is gaining popularity as the organic-food movement becomes more mainstream.
 
What began as a hobby in her kitchen has become a multistate business in only five years -- a far cry from the late nineties, when she was living in Southern California and baking 2-pound batches of organic granola for friends and family.
 
Then she moved to Portland with her husband, Mark Rosenbaum, a financial adviser who recently served as Mayor Tom Potter's campaign chair.
 
While grocery shopping one day, she noticed entire aisles devoted to organic products. "It was mind-boggling to me," she said. "It wasn't like that in Southern California."
 
A business idea was born.
 
She visited the Small Business Administration's SCORE office for business advice. She researched the organic- foods market, discovering annual double-digit growth. She rented test kitchens and tinkered with her recipe.
 
Her company now bakes about 25,000 pounds annually and is on a trajectory to double production every year.
 
The former investment adviser's products now are in stores and company and college cafeterias from Northern California to Seattle. It also has a private label product which accounts for 10 percent of sales. Though she won't reveal revenue, she says her self-financed, 4-person company is expanding and profitable."She's taken this further than I thought she could," said Eric Davis, store director at Lamb's at Stroheckers in Portland, which carries her products.
 
Sommars is quick to point out that she doesn't merely sell granola. She sells "organic" granola. Organic generally implies foods with no pesticides, hormones or genetically modified organisms. A fall 2003 survey by Whole Foods Market found that more than half of all Americans had tried organic food. Almost a third said they had increased their consumption of organic food and beverages in the previous 12 months.
 
Sales of natural food products in Oregon and Washington reached $887 million in 2003, an increase of 18 percent from the previous year, according to the trade group Natural Food Merchandiser.
 
Sommars, who has become somewhat of an organic evangelist, knew none of this when she began making her own granola 10 years ago. She is wheat-intolerant, so she began baking organic, wheat-free granola for friends, who started asking for packages to take home.
 
After moving to the Northwest and deciding to go into business, Sommars was forced to alter her recipe. Larger batches required different ingredients. "I had to modify it a lot," she said. "What works in 2-pound throws doesn't work in 200-, 500- or 2,000-pound throws."
 
Despite her company's rapid growth, she still self-distributes her products -- Some Nut Granola (with almonds), No-Nut Granola and granola with flax seed.
 
In Oregon, Sommars Ovens products are in Lamb's at Stroheckers, City Market, People's Co-op, Wizer's Markets, Market of Choice and Palisades Thriftway. She visited each store to pitch her product. She also did in-store demos herself, handing out samples to customers. "I got a lot of feedback that way. I wanted to know what people were thinking," she said.
 
The region's emphasis on healthy eating, combined with her passion and local address, helped sell her product. Lots of companies make granola, but few produce the organic variety.
 
Retail sales account for half of company revenue. The college market comprises 40 percent. Sommars calls the growth of her business "serendipitous." Those in the grocery industry, however, are much more generous. "She's sharp. I've been doing this a long time and I've seen so many products, but the difference with her is, she really believes in what she's selling," said Davis. "Her next step now is to find a distributor."
 
Sommars Ovens granola is also sold in several cafeterias on college campuses, including Willamette University in Salem and Reed College in Portland. Dan Sprauer, director of operations at Bon Appetit cafeteria at Reed, said Sommars' granola "is as good as I've ever eaten." He buys about 200 pounds of granola every month at $1.78 per pound, about 35 cents less per pound than competitors.
 
Sommars, who calls herself a "social entrepreneur," recently signed a contract with a distributor in the lucrative and largely untapped Southern California market. Other lines of potential business include school vending machines, and she's preparing a marketing campaign based around the healthy attributes of organic granola.
 
She is also open to the possibility of outside financing.
 
"First of all, [growth] needs to be very thoughtful," she said. She pauses.
 
"Do I have to have a limitation?"

World Bank Development Projects Create Opportunity for Oregon Exporter

Picture of Sherlock Mahn, Founder of Kwaplah International Trading Company, Inc.As a student at Oregon State University during the early nineties, Sherlock B. Mahn, a native of Liberia, found a niche in exporting supplies for development projects in African countries. Building on his experience in his father's import-export businesses in Liberia, Mahn became a self-taught entrepreneur with a focus on bidding for World Bank procurement opportunities. In 1993, he founded Kwaplah Int’l Trading Company, Inc. with the initial intent to export textbooks and educational supplies or equipment.

Despite being employed full-time in the first years of launching his business, Mahn expanded the core product line of textbooks to include office equipment, AV and computer equipment, and occasionally even industrial machinery. With the success of being the bidder on several small Ethiopian projects also came disappointments when Kwaplah International was out-bid on larger contracts for more diverse products.
 
The secret of business growth, it became apparent, was in developing a broader supplier base and in developing a greater number of bids. At this stage of business development the working capital shortage became noticeable. Since the World Bank requires that every proposal be accompanied by a bid bond pegged at a percentage of contract value, the need for financing grew with the volume of bids. The more bids and the larger the contracts, the more money was tied up in bid bonds and often for many months.
 
When Kwaplah International required more working capital than his small personal line of credit could supply, Mahn applied for an export line of credit and was declined. In the bank's eyes, his continued employment while developing his company relegated the enterprise to "hobby" business status. Through a Small Business Administration (SBA) Export Working Capital Program (EWCP) loan, Kwaplah International secured its first business line of credit and increased its capacity for supplier and bid bond financing. “This [EWCP] loan program has enabled Kwaplah International to bid for more substantive export projects that have otherwise been avoided in the past due to limited financial capability,” said Mahn.
 
With increasing success in landing bids and demonstrated performance to the World Bank, Mahn was successful in 2004 in signing a multi-year contract with the United Nations to supply a line of selected office products to UN offices in African countries. In 2004, Mahn quit his job to dedicate himself 100% to his growing export company. “I want to express my deep gratitude to the SBA Export Working Capital/Assistance Program for providing much required working capital and Bid/Performance Bonds that I needed to successfully and equitably compete in the export markets,” said Mahn.
 
With assistance from the SBA Export Working Capital Program, Kwaplah Int’l Trading Company, Inc.’s objective for the coming year is to vigorously pursue export opportunities across Africa in order to double or triple its export volume.

For Mobile West Linn Couple, it’s Washing Cats and Dogs

With two dogs and two cats, Dave Faul (left) and his wife, Sandra Yates, are definitely animal lovers. But when Faul suggested they start a business washing dogs and cats in a van parked at clients’ curbs, Yates said, “Thinking he was nuts was an understatement.”

Nearly three years later, however, the West Linn couple’s Wash’n Roll Pet Grooming business has expanded to two vans driving to appointments throughout the metropolitan area.
 
Mobile pet groomers are more common on the East Coast and in California than in the Northwest, said Faul, 50 who was an account executive with a women’s apparel company for 25 years before starting his own business. However, the service is beginning to catch on in the region. At least three similar businesses are operating in the metropolitan area, said Angela Jones of Portland, a pet groomer for 10 years who went mobile a few months before.
 
Faul and Yates turned the key in their first van. “In a few months, a friend of mine in Estacada plans to start another mobile grooming business,” said Jones, 44, who has a waiting list of potential clients but no plans to expand Angela’s Pet Styling Professional Mobile Grooming beyond her single van. Instead, she refers people to Wash’n Roll. Faul began research for a new business when he realized his job could evaporate in a corporate merger or store closure. He learned that the United States has a $30 billion pet industry. He also looked at who spends a lot of those dollars. “The baby boomers, whose children are getting older or who are empty-nesters, are willing to spend money on keeping their fur kids happy,” he said.
 
Yates, 47, was a real estate analyst for an agricultural lending company before taking over Wash’n Roll’s business office. “It’s quite a bit different from what I was doing,” she said, “but it’s a lot more fun.”
 
Faul attended a pet grooming school in Albany for six months, and Yates wrote a business plan. Local bankers said the business had to operate for two or three years before they could get a business loan, Faul said, so the couple paid their own startup costs. They also received assistance from SCORE: Counselors to America’s Small Business, a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration. SCORE members volunteer as counselors for small entrepreneurs. “They were really helpful,” Yates said, “and it was surprising that it was all free.”
 
Growing mostly by word of mouth, the business now has three part-time and three full-time employees, Yates said. Prices are based on breed, size of the animal and condition of the coat. A team recently washed and groomed a 200-pound Newfoundland for $200, she said, but a sleek dachshund may have a $35 bill. Prices for cats can range from $50 to $125.
 
Two people work in each van, designed by an Indiana pet groomer who now markets the vehicles. Each van has a tub, automatic shampoo dispenser, rinsing hose and grooming table. One dog can be in the tub while another is having its coat trimmed, Faul said. However, cats are another matter. “We do just one cat at a time,” he said. “But they don’t take that long, and there’s nothing better than a clean cat.”

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