Eliza Larson and Kristy Kohler started their lactation granola bar company Oat Mama by meeting moms in Whole Foods Market parking lots and designating pick-up times at local Starbucks to get their bars to customers.

The Tucson moms met three years ago watching their 2-year-old sons play at Himmel Park. Both were eight months pregnant with boys.

Out of that friendship, they birthed Oat Mama, drawing on shared struggles with breastfeeding — Larson after her first pregnancy and Kohler after her second.

“Kristy was having a hard time with her son and producing enough milk, and we noticed lactation cookies trending,” Larson, 35, says. “We would both rather have a granola bar in the diaper bag than cookies, and we’re bakers at heart. We thought, ‘Let’s just test some recipes around here.’ ”

RECIPE FOR SUCCESS

They decided to pack the bars with foods that have a reputation for helping breastfeeding moms produce milk: oats, ground flaxseed and brewer’s yeast. One of the bars contains fenugreek, an herb known to increase milk supply.

“Cookies have a lot of filler ingredients,” Kohler, 36, says. “The granola bar is all nuts and seeds and coconut oils — things that are beneficial to a new mom.”

Although they knew the main ingredients they wanted to include, finding recipes good enough to sell took some work — 60 to 70 test recipes, Larson says.

“We were breastfeeding at the time, so we were our own guinea pigs and could say, ‘This helped my supply,’ ” she adds.

All but one of their bars — the creamy peanut butter chip — are soy- and dairy-free. About a year into the business, they made all of the bars gluten-free, Larson says.

They passed out their first bar at the Tucson Festival of Books in March 2015, asking for feedback before launching.

“The feedback was so strong and people were asking where they could order more, and we were like, ‘We don’t have them ready yet!’ ” Kohler says.

Oat Mama officially launched in April 2015 online at oatmama.com. The Nut and Berry bar was their first product, the one they passed out at the book festival.

“It was the wrong choice,” Kohler says, laughing. “Everyone wants chocolate.”

So now there’s chocolate.

Oat Mama sells a variety of flavors online and in about a dozen baby boutiques around the country, Larson says. They also have a few seasonal flavors — think pumpkin pecan in the fall.

WHIPPING UP A BUSINESS

The growth of Oat Mama quickly outpaced their model of baking in Larson’s home and shipping from Kohler’s. Now they have six employees and their own warehouse with a kitchen and storage.

“We were both stay-at-home moms and ready to get back into the workforce,” Kohler says. “But it can be hard for moms to re-enter after they take a step away from their careers and it feels like there’s no way back in. For us, becoming entrepreneurs was a way back in.”

The company grew through social media, turning Larson and Kohler’s focus from a local audience into a national one. They have more than 600 customer reviews on their website, along with more than 20,000 Instagram followers and about 8,000 Facebook followers. A private Facebook group offers a place for its 390 members to encourage and commiserate with each other.

They recently went through Startup Tucson’s Thryve — a program for entrepreneurs wanting to grow their companies — and won a services package for their presentation at the end of the of the 11-week program.

Beyond the business of selling granola bars, there is another ingredient in the Oat Mama recipe: Encouragement for moms, those who breastfeed and those who don’t.

“We felt like a lot of the messaging (of other lactation products) was, ‘We’re going to help you fix this problem,’ which is a sad message,” Kohler says. “We want to be empowering, to help moms feel confident and excited to breastfeed and know they can.”

MILKING COMMUNITY

Crissi Blake and Nina Isaac, the co-owners of the local postpartum and breastfeeding support center Milk and Honey, say community support, especially early on, helps many moms nurse successfully.

“We weren’t meant to do this on our own,” says Blake, a registered nurse and certified lactation consultant. “Back in the day, we were living with grandmas and aunties and cousins who were helping us through the process, and now people are doing it on their own and weren’t meant to.”

Both Kohler and Larson were taken aback when breastfeeding didn’t come easily.

“Nobody tells you it will hurt,” Larson says.

The number one question Milk and Honey fields about breastfeeding has to do with milk supply. Although lots of moms worry they’re not producing enough breast milk for their baby, they usually are, Blake and Isaac say. And if they aren’t, sometimes, there are other root issues to examine.

Milk and Honey consultants don’t recommend galactagogues — substances like many of the ingredients in Oat Mama bars that increase lactation — for all breastfeeding moms. But for those who do need a boost in milk production, they might help.

Blake and Isaac also see women turn to galactagogues when they return to work and notice a decrease in supply when they begin using a breast pump.

But every woman is different.

“I think for a lot of moms who go back to work and have to start pumping, you’re away from your baby and might not produce as much milk, and that’s scary for a lot of moms, and so this gives confidence that they can still maintain supply,” Larson says. “They’re not magic. They don’t work for every mom, but having that as a little me time, it’s a treat for a mom to have when they are pumping once back at work or even if your child gets sick and you get a dip in supply.”

The Oat Mama website says clearly that the bars have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and don’t replace professional support.

“We have a lot of moms who use (galactagogues) and say that they have found success,” Blake says. “There’s not a lot of great research supporting it, so it’s anecdotal.”

And Oat Mama does have a lot of anecdotes on the site, some raving about the increase in milk supply and others complimenting the taste but adding that the bars didn’t aid lactation. Milk and Honey has occasionally stashed samples of their granola bars.

“We really like Oat Mama, because they’re local and they’re awesome ladies, and their product is really tasty,” Blake says.

PROVIDING FOR THEIR SONS

Recently, Oat Mama began selling a tea blend and a tank top that says “Mother Together.” They’re donating a portion of the tank proceeds to the maternal health nonprofit Every Mother Counts and a milk bank in Austin.

“We created this,” Larson says. “It’s our baby. We’re making a living off of it. That’s huge. It’s only been two years.”

Their real babies, of course, come first. Larson has another son on the way.

“I’m happy that we are setting an example for them of strong moms and role models and following our dreams,” Kohler says. “It’s important for boys to see that, and I like to be an inspiration for other moms, too, that are in our same situation who are stay-at-home moms who would love to work or do something else.”

Oat Mama has provided for Larson, Kohler and their families in more ways than one.

“My first son was a dream scenario (with breastfeeding) and with my second boy that wasn’t true,” Kohler says. “I started getting worried and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ A lactation consultant mentioned lactation cookies, and I was able to continue breastfeeding him fully because of the product that we made ... so that was a personal significance to me ...

“I love breastfeeding, and I know it can be hard and painful, but the connection you feel with the baby ... you’re looking down at him and he has passed out from the satisfaction of being in your arms, or he looks up at you, and it melts your heart.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@tucson.com or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett

Writing about Tucson's heart and soul — its people, its kindness, its faith — for #ThisIsTucson.