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A Whole New Bowl Game

Cal State Fullerton Coach Scores With Ground Oats

April 22, 1998|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Cal State Fullerton Coach Lynn Rogers and his wife, Bonnie, began grinding oats on their kitchen counter seven years ago, all they wanted was hearty oatmeal--nothing mushy, gooey or pasty.

What they got was a business that soon will be selling Coach's Oats, a chewy breakfast cereal, in Ralphs grocery stores.

And no one seems more surprised than Lynn Rogers, who never expected to become both college coach and oatmeal maker.

"Can you believe this?" he asked recently, after recounting the string of events that has led to his dual career. "Isn't this just the craziest?"

Crazy and lucky, perhaps.

Industry analysts say the oats are squeezing onto the chain stores' shelves at just the right moment in hot-cereal history, now that the Food and Drug Administration has decided that oatmeal makers can advertise their product as a "heart healthy" food.

"Oatmeal is a hot food again, in more ways than one," said Jeanne Hanley, an analyst with the Capital Reflections Inc. investment research firm.

If the Rogerses are beneficiaries of this new spin on an old breakfast cereal, it was not by design.

"We did not sit around and say, 'Let's have a strategy meeting and wear our power ties,' " said Rogers, 48, who has coached women's gymnastics at the university for 23 years. "We sort of backed into the business."

Coach's Oats Inc. was born five years ago when a friend took oatmeal samples to a natural foods trade show in Anaheim and offered them to an executive from Roman Meal Milling Co., which agreed to produce the cereal.

"I was born and raised during the Depression and I ate a lot of oatmeal, and I didn't like the stuff," said Bob Maneval, then Roman Meal's vice president and general manager. "But this I do like."

The Rogerses, who run the business from their Brea home, began selling to hotels, restaurants, hospitals and cafeterias in 1996. During that first year, their oatmeal generated a paltry $7,000. But last year, sales nudged $50,000.

In 1998, well, who knows how good things could get, said the coach, who is not given to understatement. "Our business is going to jump significantly--underline significantly--bold letters," he said. "It's hitting a home run."

Analysts say it's not easy to launch such a business, but the Rogerses may have a shot.

"Is this going to topple Quaker Oats? No way in hell," said John O'Neil, an analyst with Bankers Trust New York. "Can he build a vibrant and profitable small business? It's certainly possible."

If the business succeeds, Lynn Rogers said, his friends will deserve much of the credit. They have propelled it forward, investing in the company, pushing the product and even helping with the package design.

"Either people like us or feel sorry for us," he said. "I don't know which it is."

Friend Eddie Sheldrake, who co-owns 14 Polly's Bakery Cafes, was first to put Coach's Oats on his restaurants' menus. Sheldrake, who also has 16 KFC stores, then made cookies from the oats and began selling them at the fast-food chicken outlets.

Meanwhile, the coach struck a partnership with Bill Ross, owner of Bloomfield Bakery in Los Alamitos, who has helped develop two products--"energy bars" and instant cereal, a granola-like product that can be eaten hot or cold. The energy bars should be ready in June.

Ross also lined up a national distributor for the products and began pitching the oat bars to juice bars and other retail outlets.

"Most of the places I've talked to say, 'As soon as you have it, we'll put it in,' " he said. The Rogerses hope to add other products to their product line, including bread, muffin and pancake mixes.

Last year, Coach's Oats moved into the health food store arena, selling in Mother's Market & Kitchen stores.

But so far, the company's major accomplishment has been signing on with Ralphs, which has 265 Ralphs stores and the 58-store Hughes Family Markets chain. The oatmeal should be on store shelves by the end of the summer.

"That's like a huge leap for us," said Bonnie Rogers, 35, a graphics designer who quit work to care for the couple's two children and is now embroiled in the oats business.

It's unclear now how much shelf space the cereal will get, but it will appear in the cereal aisle, rather than the health food section, said Tom Dahlen, Ralphs senior vice president of marketing. While the cereal aisle is a veritable battle zone of competition, Dahlen said being stuck on health food shelves could limit the oatmeal's appeal.

Currently, Ralphs is working with the Rogerses to consider packaging changes to make it "more mainstream," Dahlen said, and may even suggest the coach change the name of his cereal.

While Quaker Oats has a lock on the mass market, Coach's Oats could be a hit with health-obsessed baby boomers, analyst Hanley said.

"They don't necessarily have to come head-to-head with Quaker Oats to make money." The "affluent boomer market" could help, Hanley said.

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