Metro, Food, Featured Story

Oat Shop Is Breaking Oatmeal out of Its Boring Shell

At its heart, oatmeal is a simple dish—this cannot be disputed. Maybe you like your oatmeal runny, with frothy steamed milk and fresh berries. Or maybe you like it a little stickier, like a pudding filled with walnuts and banana slices. And there is always the traditional brown sugar option for those who want nothing more than a bowl of hearty sweetness.

Some might argue that oatmeal is boring. This is probably because, when it comes to food, overlooking the simple flavors can become all too easy. Especially in the age of Instagram, eaters everywhere pay just as much—if not more—attention to how their food looks as to how it tastes. Basic dietary staples are thrown out the window in favor of innovative presentation and exotic flavors.

But oatmeal is not boring—it is the gastronomic equivalent of how home feels. Because of its comforting simplicity, oatmeal is as versatile and complex as you want it to be, which is a fact that Alan Donovan is all too ready to make sure Bostonians recognize.

From the outside, the Oat Shop is relatively nondescript. Located just across the street from the Davis Square T stop, the windowed façade allows passersby a glimpse into the their bright and compact storefront. Two round tables are clustered on the left side of the café, while a counter against the right wall provides seating on the left side. Toward the back of the shop lies a large counter featuring a display case and an impressive espresso machine—the layout is simple and modern, but it is cozy.

This simple-but-cozy feeling is exactly what Donovan was hoping for when he first decided to open the Oat Shop in 2016. Donovan, an oatmeal lover for his entire life, noticed that there was a plethora of options for people who wanted pastries or donuts for breakfast. But for those who wanted to start their day with something more nourishing, the options were slim. At the D.C.-based financial analytics firm where Donovan worked, most of his co-workers usually turned to a granola bar or sugary cereal to start their day—choices that were not only cold and depressing, but also unsatisfying and unhealthy.

Donovan noticed the remarkable success that healthy and customizable options were having in the lunch market, and decided to make the leap and apply it to his favorite breakfast option: oatmeal. So, in January 2016, Donovan quit his job and moved back to the Boston area where he began putting his plan in motion.

Despite his lack of culinary experience, Donovan had a vision. Following years of tinkering with oatmeal recipes for fun, he noticed the growing popularity of oatmeal in the health community, and knew that oatmeal could be “broken out of its shell” and expanded to savory options.

“I would say [that oatmeal has become popular because of its] versatility and because there’s just so much you can really do with it,” Donovan said. “A lot of people have it every day and don’t really get tired of it. You know one thing I noticed when I started eating it was just how I felt better. I feel like other people have felt the same way.”

Donovan explained that despite the stereotypical image of sugary oatmeal, it really is just a straightforward grain. If one approached it more like rice or farro, the flavors that a chef could incorporate into a bowl would be endless.

“There’s so many different options on the savory spectrum that are really interesting, so I just started playing with it a little bit on my own,” Donovan said.  “I tried out different recipes, you know making it like a risotto with steel cut oats, and then [tried] out all sorts of international flavors and things like that.”

Donovan continued finessing his recipes until June, at which point he opened an Oat Shop pop-up in Brookline. Because of his inexperience in the restaurant industry, Donovan explained that this process was invaluable.

“When I first started floating the idea [of the Oat Shop] around, a lot of people were like ‘you need to go work in a café for a couple years,’ and were really skeptical about starting the experience. I was understanding of the comments, but I [wanted to] spend my time working on this, so the pop up [allowed] me to practice and figure it out, but [still] be within my concept,” Donovan said. “I could start … getting the word out there about my business, as well as have paying customers try bowls.”

During the pop-up Donovan refined his menu and finalized the options that would be available once the Oat Shop opened its permanent location. And much to the delight of oatmeal-lovers, the Oat Shop opened its permanent Somerville doors to the public just two weeks ago.

The menu, which also includes fresh baked goods and espresso drinks, is divided into a sweet oatmeal section and a savory oatmeal section. The sweeter oatmeal comes in varieties such as Banana PB—the flavor combination of banana and peanut butter that spurred Donovan on this journey many years ago—and the already-popular Nuts and Berries bowl which features almond butter along with fresh berries and granola.

On the savory side, diners can choose from bowls like the Bacon and Eggs bowl (oatmeal mixed with cheddar sauce and topped with a fried egg and bacon) and the Sweet Potato Coconut Curry Bowl (oatmeal mixed with a sweet potato curry and topped with roasted garlic sweet potato). Adventurous eaters may want to try the Sushi Bowl (oats mixed with rice vinegar and homemade sushi sauce and topped with nori seaweed and avocado), which Donovan cites as the perfect example of incorporating unexpected flavors and cuisines into the oatmeal world.

And for diners who just want a taste of home, fear not, for the Oat Shop also offers their OG Bowl, which is simply oatmeal with brown sugar and steamed milk.

As the Oat Shop gets it footing in the coming weeks, and Donovan looks toward the future, he is grateful to have the Somerville community surrounding him.

“I hoped to create this café and community space that provides options that you actually feel good about,” Donovan said. “That was something that we wanted to go for as well as being part of the Somerville community, as well as part of the small business community, which is something that I feel passionate about.”

Featured Image by Madeleine D’Angelo / Heights Editor 

February 1, 2017