Touring Nashville’s Standard Candy Co., famous for its century-old Goo Goo Cluster candy bar, a pair of Owen Graduate School of Management classmates had an oddball bolt of inspiration.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have something similar for dogs?” recalls Craig O’Sullivan. At the time, he and Michael Quaranta were working with the company as part of a class project.
The friends rented a kitchen in hopes of whipping up their own creation. But rather than using chocolate, which is toxic to dogs, they locked onto three ingredients: oats, broth (in bone, vegetable and peanut butter flavors), and coconut oil. They mixed and baked and came up with Granola Barks, which, at 4 inches long and an inch wide, are ringers for human granola bars.
The company touts that each of its treats has less than a gram of sugar, and there’s even a drop of Vitamin E added for circulatory and muscle health.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” O’Sullivan says of the creation process. “We tested it out on dogs over a period of time, and determined that more than 80 percent reacted favorably.”
Quaranta launched the company in 2009 as Two Good Dogs, but struggled to make the business plan work. He took several years off until reuniting with O’Sullivan in 2016 to reboot the idea with a new name and a more ambitious business plan. For now, Granola Barks are sold only online—on Amazon and at gbarks.com—but the partners are in talks with a dog-friendly hotel chain to carry their product.
Beyond that, they’re aiming for bricks-and-mortar stores and a specific clientele.
“If you think of a Whole Foods shopper, that would be without a doubt our target customer,” O’Sullivan says. “We’re looking at young professionals and couples who own a dog and may not have kids yet. The treats are a nutritious dietary supplement, so anyone willing to spend a small premium on their canine companion is a potential customer.”
It’s a bullish time for pet industry spending. Revenues reached a record $66.8 billion in 2016, up from $60.3 billion a year earlier, according to the American Pet Products Association.
For its part, Granola Barks now sells about 500 units per month—each unit contains two bars and sells for between $2 and $3. The snacks are made in Santa Barbara, California, where Quaranta is in charge of operations; O’Sullivan is based in Weehawken, New Jersey, and handles marketing and business development.
O’Sullivan says he developed much of his business acumen at Owen. “Owen taught me how to think and how to view things from different perspectives, to be open-minded, collaborative and optimistic,” he says. “There are going to be challenges, but you have to be resilient and tenacious and push through. Owen certainly helped shape those characteristics.”
O’Sullivan doesn’t have his own dog—“My mobile lifestyle hasn’t been conducive to dog ownership, but I’m likely getting one in the near future,” he says—but he carries Granola Barks samples with him when he walks his neighborhood.
He’s developed a Pavlovian response among his four-legged friends.
“The tails wag and they wolf them down,” O’Sullivan says. “They come right back to me, and they’re ready for more.”