Bear Naked

Natural and healthy and available in four flavors.

By Thames Schoenvogel
bear naked granola

Flatley and Synnott.
Photo courtesy of Bear Naked.

Kelly Flatley (Sociology ’01) needed a break.

It was a year after her graduation and she had just finished a stint working for Sports Illustrated at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. A friend was living in Paris at the time, and she decided that a few weeks in the City of Light was just the ticket. Her parents agreed to the hiatus, but with one stipulation — she needed to return home with a career plan.

“So I went over there, had a great time and didn’t give a thought to what I would do when I got back,” Flatley says. Finally, on the night before her return flight, she sat with her friend in a café and debated her options. Her friend reminded Flatley of the granola, beloved by family and friends, that she had baked for years and suggested that she try to sell it. Thus, Bear Naked Granola was born.

Flatley, originally from Connecticut, transferred to U.Va. from the University of San Diego her second year. “I really wanted to return to the East Coast, and U.Va. had always been a dream school for me,” she says. After graduation, she spent a year exploring an interest in sports marketing, completing an internship with Sports Illustrated for Women and then working at the Olympics.

Flatley returned from Paris on July 4, 2002 and told her parents about the idea; at first they were shocked at such an offbeat idea, but soon decided it seemed like a great plan. She got her business license the next day and soon began renting rented nightly kitchen space from a local shop. When Flatley began selling the granola in nearby health food shops and cafes, she found that “people were immediately receptive.”

Flatley had baked the granola as a healthy snack in college, basing the recipes on her own taste preferences and an interest in nutrition. The catchy name she later adopted came from the phrase “hungry as a bear,” as well as the granola’s all-natural, barely processed ingredients.

In October of 2002, Flatley ran into an old friend from high school, Brendan Synnott. He was working for “Saturday Night Live” at the time but was captivated by the Bear Naked business. With demand for the product growing, Flatley was in need of a partner, and so the two joined forces within weeks. Flatley oversees the baking aspect, while Synnott is responsible for business affairs. 

Synnott came to Bear Naked with a fresh marketing perspective and a vision to take the product national. At his urging, the duo changed the packaging and gave the Bear Naked brand more of an edgy feel. “I think that what emerged is a very cool brand, not too in your face, but different and edgy enough to catch your attention,” Flatley says.

The partners also pursued a grassroots marketing campaign, taking the granola to numerous athletic events. After a 2003 order from Stew Leonard’s, a Northeast chain of grocery stores, the company moved into a commercial kitchen facility, and demand for the product soon skyrocketed. Now you can find the granola not only on the East Coast but also in California, where they launched in January.

But Bear Naked’s success does not mean Flatley and Synnott are slowing down any time soon. Flatley estimates that she is in the kitchen at least 12 hours a day, despite the fact that the company now employs around 50 people.

The Connecticut-based company, which currently offers four flavors of granola, plans to launch a low-fat, low-sugar granola in October. In the not-so-distant future, Flatley expects to launch an oatmeal line and target new cities including Denver, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

Synnott and Flatley sacrificed most of their time and 18 months of pay to get the product going, but the results have made it all worthwhile. The company has even been the subject of a Food Network show.

Flatley says that they may consider selling the company at some point, but not any time soon. “We would love to take it to a point where we become a desirable brand for a larger food company to acquire,” she says. “But we’re not even thinking about it right now.”

She is busy enough churning out an average of 20,000 pounds of granola a day.

“It’s been fun, it’s been educational and it’s really rewarding now to stroll down the grocery store aisle and see the product.”