The words ethnic and dairy go together like cheesecake and espresso. North America’s love for dairy products may be traced directly to those cultures where milk was a crucial form of protein, not only consumed fresh, but transformed by farmers and artisans into flavorful cheeses, custards, yogurts and ice creams.
In the American melting pot, wave after wave of immigrants have helped make dairying, and the resultant products — everything from Italian-style cheeses to Horchata — part of this country’s food traditions.
Initially, the products merely provided some familiarity to the lives of ethnic populations in the new world. Later they also contributed to the broad palate of flavors that helped build the foundation of American cuisine.
Today, three segments of dairy products, each with ethnic roots, are going beyond both of these mileposts to become part of the new array of food choices in demand by consumers. Their forms may be functional, whimsical, natural, organic, or densely nutritional.
It is Greek to us
There was a time when a trip to the Greek Isles, or at least to a specialty deli, was the only way for American consumers to experience the dense, rich texture of Greek yogurt. All of that has changed in the past decade.
In 1998, FAGE SA began importing its Greek-style yogurt to the United States. In 2005, the company created FAGE USA Corp., a subsidiary that continued importing yogurt, but also began building a processing facility in Johnstown, N.Y., that began manufacturing product later that year.
From FAGE’s initial efforts to enter the U.S. market, there are now a half-dozen brands of Greek-style yogurt sold in markets throughout the United States.
So how did this heretofore exotic product elbow its way into the already competitive U.S. yogurt segment? The answer has everything to do with the yogurt itself.
Traditional Greek yogurt is strained to remove the whey. This leads to a drier, more concentrated product. No matter what the fat content, fat-free included, the concentration of other milk solids leads to a creamier texture. The concentration of solids means Greek-style yogurt is packed with protein, which plays well with consumers interested in nutrient-dense foods.
Greek Americans are not driving this subcategory, said Sophie Schmitt, brand manager for Oikos Greek Yogurt, which is made and sold by Stonyfield Farm, Londonderry, N.H. Stonyfield introduced the Oikos brand in May 2007.
"It’s really people who already love yogurt and are looking to trade up," Ms. Schmitt said. "People who are used to yogurt, and looking for more of what yogurt offers. What’s great about Greek yogurt is that it’s a very nutritional product and it has a great texture that’s almost dessert-like. Also, it’s very natural. It’s made with just milk — and for us it’s organic milk."
Most Greek-style yogurt is made without starches or other thickeners, which helps provide a clean label. In Greece, most yogurt traditionally is sold in a plain flavor that is more tart than some traditional American yogurts. Added flavors are simple and natural, usually consisting of honey, a blended vanilla, or perhaps a single fruit. FAGE uses a segregated cup indentation for fruits and honey. Oikos uses fruit on the bottom, ala Stonyfield Chocolate Underground.
Cabot Creamery, Montpelier, Vt., began making a Greek-style yogurt approximately two years ago.
"At the time there were not a whole lot of players other than FAGE," said Amy Levine, Cabot’s director of marketing. "We had a couple of customers interested, and it seemed like a product we could make well."
Cabot, which is known for producing natural Vermont-style Cheddars, now sells a few flavors of Greek-style yogurt in cups and in 2-lb tubs to retailers along the East coast. The range of customers includes specialty, natural and organic stores as well as general grocery chains, Ms. Levine said.
"We’re really seeing that this sits well with the consumer base who normally buys Cabot (products) — a higher income, highereducation demographic," she said.
Information Resources, Inc., a Chicago-based market research company, said sales of Greek and Greek-style yogurt were up 136% in the 52 weeks ended April 26. Overall, yogurt sales increased 4%.
Greek yogurt takes about three times as much milk to make, so it tends to be considerably more expensive than other yogurts. Ms. Schmitt said the extra input cost is even more so for the Oikos brand, but that organic differentiation is crucial.
"We think organic milk makes everything taste better, and we know it is also better for the planet," Ms. Schmitt added. "We like to say that’s the way the Greeks have always made it."
A strawberry flavor recently was added to the line of plain, vanilla, honey and blueberry. The Oikos brand is offered in a variety of s.k.u.s (stock-keeping units), including a new 4-pack of 4-oz snack cups.
Other brands of Greek-style yogurt include The Greek Gods, of Terrace, Wash., and Chobani, which is made and marketed by Agro-Farma Inc., South Edmeston, N.Y.
Additional emerging ethnic trends
The Smolyansky family has built Lifeway Foods, Morton Grove, Ill., around kefir, a dairy product most Americans had never heard of until recently. Kefir is a first cousin to yogurt, but in addition to beneficial bacterial cultures, it contains kefir "grains," a yeast-like fungus that helps to ferment the milk base.
When Michael Smolyansky and his family founded Lifeway Foods more than 20 years ago, kefir was an old-world food imported for Americans of eastern European heritage, and it came in one flavor — sour. Lifeway added flavors and a range of other products, and soon the company went public.
Since 2002 the next generation of Smolyanskys, Julie and Edward, have expanded the small Chicago area company. They have bought competitors, improved packaging, added organic lines, gone all-natural, and created a special kefir for children, called Pro Bugs. Lifeway also has branched off into nutritional bars, and the Smolyanskys have launched StarFruit, a retail chain modeled on the new frozen yogurt craze with a product line of frozen kefir.
Despite creating a broader market (Lifeway products are sold nationwide in Whole Foods and Target stores), the Smolyanskys also still speak the language of appealing to ethnic tastes. The company markets a La Fruta line of cultured drinks appealing to the Hispanic market, and recently it introduced the first packaged Lassi to the American mass market. The sweetened, cultured dairy drink is a staple of Indian and Bengali food traditions.
Red Mango is one of the top two chains operating in the relatively young category of Korean-style frozen yogurt. Its newest flavor sounds a bit like a Madison Avenue marketer’s fantasy. It’s called Tangomonium and has flavor notes of fresh fruit and citrus that the company markets around the adjectives "bright," "sunny," "uplifting," "tangy" and "rejuvenating."
Both Red Mango and its primary competitor, Pinkberry, model their marketing strategies after Starbucks, serving their products in hip, comfortable stores. Korean-style frozen yogurt is tart and natural and may be topped with an array of fresh fruits, nuts, grains, cereals, and candy.