Artisan creamery's flavorful yogurt turns heads

Artisan creamery's flavorful yogurt turns heads

ATLANTA — One of the most exciting things to hit commercial yogurt-making since "fruit on the bottom" operates from a generic-looking office park located along an access road in Norcross, Ga.

The sign outside says "AtlantaFresh." But, "Deliciously mad culinary scientists at work inside" would be an equally apt description of this 3-year-old company that caught the Greek yogurt wave early on and has been seeking out exotic flavor shores ever since.

Keep your boring blueberry, your plain-Jane peach! At AtlantaFresh, that think-outside-the-container mentality has resulted in a flavor lineup that includes Black Cherry & Port Wine, Mango-Pineapple-Habanero (aka "Tropical Sweet Heat") and — coming in March — Bananas Foster and Strawberry, Basil, Balsamic.

(Yes, those are two separate flavors, but don't put anything past AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery founder Ron Marks at this point.)

"I call it the 'Tongue of the Street,' " Marks said in summing up the unique approach to Greek yogurt that has caught the attention — and shelf space — of Whole Foods in 13 states, Alon's and some 30 other supermarkets and specialty-food shops around metro Atlanta.

"The most successful (food) products are a combination of craftsmanship, skill and instincts about what people want to eat, even if they don't always realize it."

That is the AtlantaFresh recipe, said Stephen Corradini, Whole Foods' vice president of purchasing for the South region. AtlantaFresh already is his region's No. 3 best-selling Greek yogurt brand, and Whole Foods' Local Producer Loan Program has helped the creamery expand its production and distribution capabilities (Marks says AtlantaFresh produces about 1,700 cases of yogurt per week).

"The No. 1 thing is its overall taste. You can instantly feel the difference, the quality, on your tongue," Corradini enthused. "Beyond that, it's the creative aspect of the flavors — like the Mexican chocolate, like the maple-bacon. No one else is doing that in yogurt."

He's not alone in declaring AtlantaFresh habañero hot.

Both Food & Wine and Cooking Light magazines have heaped praise on AtlantaFresh, with the latter dubbing its velvety smooth Greek (nearly all flavors are available in nonfat, 2 percent and frozen versions) the "Perfect Yogurt." That's an especially big deal, given Greek yogurt's rock-star status right now.

If all yogurt is good for you, then Greek style — which is high in protein and probiotics, and low in sugar and lactose — is even better. Small wonder then that it currently accounts for 36 percent of the $6.5 billion in total U.S. yogurt sales, according to investment firm AllianceBernstein. That's up from a mere 4 percent in 2008.

But good for you — let alone "perfect" — doesn't come cheap. A 6-ounce container of AtlantaFresh costs $2.39 at Whole Foods and $2 at its Norcross company store, which is open three days a week.

It's costlier to make Greek yogurt, a painstaking process that involves separating out the water that remains after milk has been cultured (the "whey"). That means buying a lot more milk: about 300 gallons to make 100 gallons of AtlantaFresh Greek, Marks said.

But what milk! It arrives fresh and free of artificial growth hormones in the morning from Southern Swiss Dairy in Waynesboro, Ga., allowing AtlantaFresh to pitch its yogurt as "24 Hours Cow to Carton." All the fruit fillings are made in house, which explains all those nonrubbery peach chunks studding the popular Peach & Ginger flavor.

"Someone sits here and peels and chops 50 pounds of ginger," said Ray Feeney, who started out selling AtlantaFresh at farmers markets two years ago and now is a key member of the nine-person staff that handles everything except delivery.

Marks, 57, grew up in western Pennsylvania, where his parents ran a general store, and he has "vivid memories" of small dairy farms' products. A Culinary Institute of America graduate, he worked as a high-end restaurant chef, then became Applebee's senior vice president of research and development and eventually started his own firm, Focus on Food. Business slowed when the recession hit in 2008; by then, though, Marks' research had pointed him back to where he'd essentially started.

"Artisan creameries were being established in traditional dairy country, but no one was doing it in the Southeast," said Marks, who opened AtlantaFresh in the old Focus on Food location. "I thought there was a vacuum." A vacuum that was just waiting to be filled with Strawberry, Basil, Balsamic, apparently.

"It can be a bridge of comfort for them to try something new," Marks said of people who have maybe tried a salad with that combination but not Greek yogurt and vice versa. "It's a win-win."

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