Most mornings, the line to eat at OatMeals — an oats-centric establishment in New York City’s trendy West Village neighborhood — extends out the door.
And it’s not just nearby workers or New York University students who are finding their way to the cozy storefront — even international tourists are seeking it out. “It’s really cool when people say, ‘I heard about you!’ and it turns out they’re from Brazil,” says Samantha Stephens, the woman who founded the comfort food sensation back in 2012 — after over a decade of planning and preparation.
Though it took years to get the idea off the ground, Stephens stuck with it, proving that no matter how far-fetched or distant a goal may seem, an entrepreneur who dedicates time and energy to something can make it into a reality.
Good thing — OatMeals’ steady stream of eager clientele shows that Stephens was truly on to something.
Part of what makes her operation special, beyond its emphasis on oats, is the variety of flavors it offers. In addition to traditional options, you can sample more adventurous fare. For example, the “trufﬂe risOATto” comes with shaved Parmesan, truffle oil, sea salt and cracked black pepper.
But folks are also drawn in by the snug feeling of enjoying foods they ate as children. “Everyone can relate to the product, and psychologically connect to it,” she says.
Getting Inspired Early
Stephens is an entrepreneur who understands the power of childhood influences.
Her grandparents, Jim and Eva Wells, were both business owners. Her grandfather sold and managed amusement rides (including The Carousel on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.), while her grandmother refurbished and resold antique furniture.
“They did very well for themselves,” she says, adding that they worked their way up from humble beginnings. “They were tough people, but they were serious, and smart.”
After years of frequenting antique shops and auctions with them as a child, their spirit rubbed off on Stephens (her grandparents’ influence can be seen in the vintage oatmeal containers that fill the shelves of her store). But it would be several years before the entrepreneurial bug they also passed on to her would manifest itself.
Slow-Cooking Her Idea to Perfection
Stephens’s love affair with oatmeal started in college. In 2000, she left Fairfax, Va., and moved to New York City to attend Baruch College. While settling in, she began exploring the Big Apple’s culinary scene, and gained the dreaded “freshman 15” pounds in the process.
To become healthier and more frugal, she turned to oatmeal as a solution. And soon, her experimentation with recipes featuring oats led to the idea of a restaurant that served nothing but these healthy grains. “I would see these specialty places and think, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done an oatmeal bar?’ It seemed so obvious.”
Her lack of knowledge about the restaurant industry temporarily kept her from pursuing the idea. Instead, after graduating in 2005, she started working as an event planner and researcher in the investment banking world, first at Dresdner, then at J.P. Morgan.
But the restaurant idea was — dare we say — ingrained in her mind (Stephens started looking into real estate options for her business as early as 2006). So she attended the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies to learn about entrepreneurship, and the French Culinary Institute to solidify her cooking skills. “It really gave me the confidence to finally do this,” she says.
Things started to come together for her after that, and, with the help of funding from her grandmother, bank loans and the contents of her 401(k), Stephens finally opened OatMeals’ doors in June of 2012.
Taking Her Lumps
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all smooth going after that. Despite many years of planning, the first year in business hit Stephens’ wallet harder than anticipated. “Everything that could have broken broke. It was insane — just physically, mentally and emotionally draining,” she says.
Beyond the financial strain, she wasn’t prepared for the time and energy needed to get the store up and running. Hers is a small operation — 10 to 15 employees, depending on the season — and Stephens is involved at all levels, handling everything from creating recipes to washing dishes, depending on the day. In fact, she was unable to give herself even one day off a week until after OatMeals’ second birthday.
Now, she’s hitting her stride. “I have at least two or three days out of the store a week,” she says. “It’s great for me to be able to back up, because I’m working on all of these other projects.”
Second Helpings of Success
From the beginning, Stephens has focused on partnership opportunities, including one with Quaker Oats. She crafts recipes for the company, speaks at events and cross-promotes content with them on social media, among other things. It’s a big “get” since, as Stephens noted, “they’re the most iconic oatmeal brand out there — everyone knows their name.”
She has also collaborated with other businesses in Manhattan, such as the hip exercise outfits SoulCycle and Physique 57, to come up with cross-promotions. And she’s even working on a cookbook.
If that weren’t enough, OatMeals is in talks to become a franchise. (Stephens declined to disclose annual revenue figures due to ongoing negotiations). She has her eyes set on locations in airports, college campuses and business districts in other big cities.
It’s all a part of reaching the goal she set for herself during those poor college days: to get oats out of the breakfast aisle. After all, who doesn’t love the joy and warmth of a hot meal at any time of day? Says Stephens, “That’s the thing about comfort food — even if there’s a recession going on, people can go to oatmeal, because it makes them feel comfy and happy.”