Growing oatmeal sales

Redmond’s Straw Propeller available on Amazon.com

By Joseph Ditzler / The Bulletin

Published Jan 30, 2014 at 12:01AM

REDMOND — Straw Propeller is turning much faster today than it did when the gourmet oatmeal company lifted off in its founders’ kitchen in September 2011.

Now the company, which employs about 20, is poised to climb to higher altitudes online. For about two weeks, its Blueberry Blitz, Peaches & Berry Bramble and Cherry Chia oatmeal flavors, along with its 12 other offerings, have been available through Amazon.com.

Until June 2011, the production line began and ended in Patricia Bartelson’s kitchen, where her sons, Caleb and Ethan, worked a DeWalt heat gun to seal the see-through tops of 12-ounce portable cups of gourmet oatmeal. Bartelson started off distributing her product to coffee shops around Central Oregon. Company sales grew another 500 percent in 2013 over the previous year, said Julie Leutschaft, vice president of manufacturing operations.

“People are willing to spend more for good nutrition and low calories; something you don’t have to take the time to prepare,” she said.

Bartelson said Straw Propeller’s largest distributor is a Salem company, Spring Valley Dairy, and its products are still available in local coffee shops. Its distinctive single-serving cups are available in grocery stores like Whole Foods and Ray’s, at Harry & David gourmet gift stores, and elsewhere. They’re also available through the company website, www.strawpropeller gourmetfoods.com.

But a move to Amazon bodes well.

“In terms of retail, no doubt about it,” said Jim Kress, a business professor at Central Oregon Community College. “Amazon has changed the marketplace. Amazon has made it possible for a small company to sell their products to anybody, anywhere.”

Straw Propeller started off with one Amazon distribution center in Chattanooga, Tenn., Bartelson said. If sales take off, Amazon will increase its order. She said she’s not sure what to expect in terms of sales, but the company is ready if they escalate quickly. Plans are to install the first automated line within weeks and eventually expand into its entire building.

The company, housed in a three-bay space in a business park on Umatilla Avenue, ships 60,000 to 90,000 12-ounce cups every month, Leutschaft said. Straw Propeller, with input from its employees, also developed new products, like gluten-free oatmeal and muesli, and further variations on its staple, gourmet oatmeal.

“We offer a curry oatmeal. New Yorkers love this,” she said.

Kress said small businesses also benefit from improvements in online search engines. Ten years ago, an online search for oatmeal might yield a familiar brand like Quaker Oats. But today, a search engine localizes to the Internet service provider and returns results in the local area. “Combined with Amazon, that allowed people like Straw Propeller to play in the game against some major manufacturers, Kraft Foods, or whatever,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7815, jditzler@bendbulletin.com