Chef Sam Stephens of NYC’s OatMeals
January is National Oatmeal Month. The wholesome grain is a staple in many of our diets, but it’s usually consumed as a simple breakfast – paired with some milk and maybe a little brown sugar or maple syrup. One Greenwich Village business owner has made it her life’s work to elevate the lowly oat from its station at the breakfast table and broaden its appeal as a dish that can be enjoyed throughout the day. We spoke with Chef Samantha Stephens, owner of OatMeals in New York City, about how she discovered oatmeal’s versatility and why she was inspired to open her all-oatmeal specialty shop. Get the story behind the world’s first all-oatmeal café here, and then read our full interview with Sam below.
A Moativated Menu
Stop in at OatMeals any time during the day and they’ll likely have a dish to satisfy any craving you may be having. Take the Devils Off Horseback, a spin on the devils on horseback hors d’oeuvre; it features oatmeal topped with goat cheese, bacon, dates, almonds, and maple syrup. Then, there’s the Thai Style Sweet & Spicy, which includes pineapple, peanut butter, and Sriracha hot sauce. If you’re craving something sweet, consider the S’mores oatmeal or the Gingerbread Bowl.
If one of OatMeals’ custom creations isn’t exactly what you’re in the mood for, build your own bowl of oatmeal topped with any number of the dozens of toppings that are available, ranging from fresh fruit like raspberries and bananas to savory additions like truffle oil and pesto. Any bowl you build is available in three sizes: the 8-ounce Baby Bear, 12-ounce Mama Bear, and 16-ounce Papa Bear.
What sparked Sam’s impulse to get creative with oatmeal, of all things? It started when she was an undergrad at Baruch College, part of The City University of New York. New to the Big Apple’s food scene, Sam realized that her ability to indulge in a slice of pizza or a croissant any time she liked was taking a toll on her health. Her interest in oatmeal began simply as a way to make healthier food choices, but it wasn’t long before she discovered oatmeal could be more than a tame breakfast meal. She began experimenting with savory oatmeal and soon discovered that the dish could be worked into any meal of the day.
“I think the easiest way to start playing around with oatmeal – and something that surprises people – is trying it savory style. A lot of people are unfamiliar with oatmeal for lunch or dinner, but you can put different cheeses, or bacon, or ham, or even a poached egg on it.”
Sam was inspired to turn her passion for oatmeal into a career when she looked around at all the specialty food shops popping up in the city. “Seeing all these single-item specialty shops that New York has – there’s a rice pudding place, there’s a macaroni and cheese shop, there was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich shop. I just wondered, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done an oatmeal bar?'”
Although the inspiration to open an all-oatmeal concept came fairly early for Sam, the journey to opening the shop was an exercise in patience. She began looking for a commercial retail space in the notoriously expensive New York real estate market, but without any formal culinary training, she had a hard time convincing landlords to take her proposal seriously.
“I was looking at the bios of different chefs and different specialty item restaurant operators, and it looked like everybody had gone to culinary school, so I figured that I had to do the time and I had to go to culinary school.”
Sam enrolled at the International Culinary Center, where she picked up a host of unique skills. “I learned how to do wedding cakes, blown sugar, cake stands, and chocolates; it was unbelievable. I feel like everything I learned just gave me that confidence to then go and really make this happen.”
Sam finished her program and became a pastry chef in 2010. Her experience in culinary school helped prepare her to build up the other side of OatMeals’ menu. “I figured that if I couldn’t sell somebody a bowl of oatmeal, then I could sell them a really good oatmeal cookie or an oatmeal muffin.” That’s why you’ll find a diverse range of house-made bakery snacks on OatMeals’ menu, too, from oatmeal cookies, muffins, and scones to chokladbollar, or Swedish chocolate oat balls.
Sam says that her advice to operators looking to turn their passions into niche businesses is to ask plenty of questions. “Now when people come to me for business advice, I say, ‘Go ask a lot of questions to other, similar operators, because you really need to do your homework and get some hard numbers from people.'”
Nearly five years after opening, the future looks bright for OatMeals: Sam has begun franchising her business and wants to see OatMeals locations across the country and abroad. “I think that there’s a place for oatmeal in airports, college campuses, and in all major cities.”
Beyond her role as the owner of OatMeals, Sam is also Quaker Oats’ “Creative Oatmeal Ambassador,” a title that denotes her dedication to sharing the joy that an imaginative bowl of oatmeal can bring. Her first cookbook is in the works.
Our Conversation with Chef Stephens
KaTom: Your website says that you started getting into oatmeal as an undergrad as you were trying to find ways to build a healthy lifestyle. What were some of those earliest experiments?
Samantha Stephens: I think the easiest way to start playing around with oatmeal – and something that surprises people – is trying it savory style. A lot of people are unfamiliar with oatmeal for lunch or dinner, but you can put different cheeses, or bacon, or ham, or even a poached egg on it. There are a lot of savory ingredients that we have at the shop. We have sundried tomatoes, and pesto sauce, and parmesan cheese. That’s sort of the most surprising thing, when you think of oatmeal like rice or risotto and expand it into lunch and dinner meals. I realized that there’s a place for this in the market.
K: Were you experimenting with savory oatmeal pretty early on? Is that one of the things you discovered in college?
SS: Yes, absolutely. Seeing all these single-item specialty shops that New York City has – there’s a rice pudding place, there’s a macaroni and cheese shop, there was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich shop – I just wondered, “Why hasn’t anyone done an oatmeal bar?” It seemed kind of obvious with everyone talking about healthy eating all the time. And actually, right before I got the store open – I was working on this concept for over a decade – but right before I got it open, McDonald’s started selling oatmeal, and Dunkin Donuts, and Starbucks, and I just realized that there’s definitely a need for this in the market.
K: When you were getting things together to open the shop, did you consult any of the operators of any of the other specialty stores? Did you go to them and look at their challenges? What were some of the particular challenges of finding success in a niche?
SS: Honestly, I learned the hard way – after having the store for 41⁄2 years now – that I should have probably gone and asked more questions in the beginning when I was setting everything up. And now when people come to me for business advice I say, “Go ask a lot of questions to other, similar operators, because you really need to do your homework and get some hard numbers from people.”
A big challenge was definitely finding the right space. Obviously New York City real estate is incredibly expensive. Other challenges were having the money to do that and taking out loans. It took me a very long time to make it happen.
K: You’ve obviously had a passion for oatmeal for a while, but you did study at the International Culinary Center before you opened the shop. What experiences did you have there that prepared you to become a chef and an operator as your full-time identity?
SS: I made the decision to go to culinary school because I wasn’t able to find a retail space. I was applying for different commercial real estate spaces and a lot of landlords were not taking me seriously because I really didn’t have any experience in the restaurant world. I had been working in the banking world for a long time. I was looking at the bios of different chefs and different specialty item restaurant operators, and it looked like everybody had gone to culinary school, so I figured that I had to do the time and I had to go to culinary school.
As much as oatmeal is not the fanciest thing the world you can think of – you can obviously find a lot of recipes online for how to make a simple bowl of oatmeal – I realized that the oatmeal pastry side of this could be really big too. I figured that if I couldn’t sell somebody a bowl of oatmeal, then I could sell them a really good oatmeal cookie or an oatmeal muffin. So I wanted to perfect my pastry skills. So I actually became a pastry chef. The program at the International Culinary Center was amazing. I learned how to do wedding cakes, blown sugar, cake stands, and chocolates – it was unbelievable. I feel like everything I learned just gave me that confidence to then go and really make this happen.
K: I want to talk about the oats themselves. I understand that a lot people are attracted to it because it is such a healthy, wholesome item. What are some of the health benefits of oatmeal that are attracting people to it?
SS: They’re super heart healthy. It’s the only food on the market that has an FDA claim about lowering cholesterol. It’s really the most heart-healthy thing out there. Oats are very nutrient dense; they have all sorts of vitamins and minerals. They keep you feeling full for a long time because they have a lot of fiber. If you start your day with oats, they’re stabilizing your blood sugar and they’re working their way through your system slowly and you’ll stay feeling full longer. You’ll make it to lunch without different cravings.
K: You guys use steel-cut oats at the shop. What is it about steel-cut oats that make that the preferred format for you?
SS: Personally I like steel cut because they have a hearty texture and a really nice mouthfeel, something close to a rice feel. Steel cut is the least-processed type of oats. Any kind of oats that you can get into your diet is great. Even if you just have time for instant oatmeal or quick oats, that’s great as well. But if you do have the time to make steel-cut oatmeal, it is one of my favorites.
K: What else about your work would you like to share with our readers?
SS: I’m going to be expanding. I’m franchising OatMeals, so keep an eye out for the brand nationwide and even abroad. I think that there’s a place for oatmeal in airports, college campuses, and in all major cities. The store is just getting busier and busier. I do a lot of work with Quaker Oats as a spokesperson, and I’m working on a cookbook.