OATDEAL, based in Saskatoon, the largest city in Canada's Saskatchewan province, has produced the first gluten-free, dried oat-based smoothie mix made with 100 percent oats grown in the Canadian Prairies and 100 percent Canadian dry skim milk, all with natural flavors.
The company's range of oatmeal-based Smoothie drinks is available in Cinnamon, Chocolate, and Vanilla in attractive pouch packaging.
Smoothies contain only five grams of added sugar, while the fact that it contains milk (with natural sugar) elevates the amount of sugar in the label to nine grams. OATDEAL also introduced an oatmeal smoothie with no added milk, while consumers can blend it with any milk replacement like almond milk.
The oat-based food and beverage company was founded by George Barreras, who moved to Canada from Colombia with his wife Skay in 2006 and launched the Oatdeal brand in 2014.
George and Skay came from a tropical country, where oat drinks and hot cereal drinks are very popular, although the oats are imported from Canada.
Mr. Barreras saw a gap in the hot beverage category and decided to develop oatmeal drinks made with 100 percent Canadian-grown oats.
"We knew that Canada was a large producer of oats and cereals and we were surprised to learn that oat drinks were not popular," he says.
"Canadians are not familiar with hot smoothies even though it is a very cold country. The average Canadian drinks hot coffee, hot chocolate or tea during winter.
However, Canadians know the health benefits of oats. They eat them as porridge and bake with them. "This is when we realized there was an opportunity to introduce an oatmeal drink in the Canadian Market."
The first step for the company was contacting the Saskatoon Food Centre, a business incubator, which helped Oatdeal with the product development.
"It's one thing to make an oat beverage at home with Grandma's recipe and another story to make it on a larger scale in a production facility with all the appropriate regulations and labels approved," Mr. Barreras says.
"Once we had the prototype ready we needed money to start production and promote our brand. We applied for a grant with Saskatchewan Agrivalue Initiative (SAVI), part of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. Our application was approved, and the first run of Oatdeal started. We are now in 450 stores across western Canada and soon will be in the US Hispanic market."
However, there were challenges to overcome. One was to make Canadians understand that they can drink oats and that an oats-based beverage also tastes good.
"When we do product sampling at supermarkets, people are skeptical of the taste, and some don't want to try it. Once they try our oat smoothies, it is an entirely different story. We estimate that 90 percent of the people that try it like it," Mr. Barreras says.
Another challenge was approaching retailers with an unknown product. Some stores do not want to try products they don't know.
When Mr. Barreras saw that people were putting unhealthy whiteners in their coffees, he realized that there was another opening for a healthy nutritious alternative. He devised an oat-based coffee creamer OATFEE that makes coffee a more nutritious drink. Oatfee is made from oats, protein, and probiotics.
Oatdeal describes itself as a clean label company with a gluten-free dried oat smoothie mix, and while it has not considered moving into organic products just yet, in December, it launched a new product named OAT BOOST.
"This product is meant for people who prepare fruit smoothies and would like to enhance them with protein, oats, and probiotics," Mr. Barreras explains.
"Unfortunately, most of the proteins in the market come with artificial flavors and are sweetened with sugars or sweeteners which do not allow consumers to enjoy the real flavor and natural sweetness of the fruits they are adding."
He believes that Oat Boost provides consumers with a unique product made to enhance fruit smoothies and combines gluten-free whole oats, pea protein, and probiotics with no added flavors, sugars or sweeteners. It is not only gluten-free but also lactose and additive free, he adds.
"The fact that we use pea protein makes it ideal for vegans and people avoiding whey proteins. We use Bc30 probiotics, a probiotic that enhances protein and carbohydrate digestion and is very popular among athletes and body builders."
Oat Boost is available in (0.88 oz) one serving individual sachets and large bags of (13.2oz) and (17.6oz) with a shelf life of two years.
In 2015 Food in Canada magazine listed Oatdeal as one of the top 10 firms to watch. "Being selected by the magazine was great publicity and helped us move our products to Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia. Retailers like to see products that get named by the media," Mr. Barrera says.
Canadians are supporting the line once they try it, he says with many people buying it just to add it to coffee. Most consumers prefer their products warm, even though they also taste good cold. "That is probably why our sales have been higher in winter than in any other season," Mr. Barrera adds.
The company aims to supply restaurants and hotels. "We are currently designing a larger bag with a serving cup to cater to restaurant chains. Smoothies are trending now, and the fact that our smoothies are hot can attract customers. Our price is also very competitive," he says.
"The good thing about the Saskatoon Food Centre is that you rent space and equipment for your production runs without the need of buying expensive equipment or building up a facility.
"We still use the food center, and we are also looking at some larger co-packers. Building a plant is not yet in our plans, but depending on the demand it can be an option in the future."
Oatdeal has exhibited at several US and Canadian food events including Expo West in 2016. “We did not make any deals at that show.” Mr. Barrera believes the reason is that it is a vast event and small companies like Oatdeal can get lost because of lack of visibility.
"There are so many companies promoting their products that retailers and food distributors don't have the time to visit everyone. I've been in smaller events and found them better for smaller companies like us," he says.
The US Hispanic market is a promising target for Oatdeal. Product labels have been added in Spanish and English.
The smoothie product launched for the Hispanic market is known as ATOLE DE AVENA, hot oatmeal smoothies that are very popular among Mexican and Central American people, Mr. Barrera explains.
He expects that by March this year, the Oatdeal range will be available in Hispanic stores and supermarkets in the state of Texas.
Exports outside of North America are on the company's agenda. "We will export to Colombia soon, with plans to target that market the same way we are doing with Hispanics in the US," Mr. Barrera says.