Anita Shepherd originally started trying to make coconut yogurt to use in her vegan baked goods. But the end product—made with just coconut milk, coconut water, and live cultures—proved to be a bigger entrepreneurial opportunity than gluten-free muffins.
She launched her company in September of 2013 and today has a 1,050 square-foot manufacturing space in a basement in Brooklyn and a booming vegan yogurt business. —Emily Johnson
I moved to New York after college with not a lot of direction and not a lot of money. I had studied biology in college and I wanted to go to graduate school, but I was not doing a good job studying for my GREs. I was working full time, picking up whatever I could get, cocktail waitressing, working as a receptionist. I had a night job and a day job. I didn’t get into graduate school. And I just decided I didn’t want to go through it again.
During that time, I became interested in cooking for the first time in my life. Any down time I had—which, wasn’t much—I was experimenting with food, creating recipes. I found a pastry job working for the pastry chef, Pichet Ong. He originally worked under Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]. It was the first job I’d ever had with extreme discipline. It was exciting and challenging and it taught me to push myself.
The established norm in food is to take a tiny taste of the food you make and throw the rest away, or, if you really take it to the extreme, to spit it out. I actually ate one of everything I made, and I started to gain a lot of weight. I wasn’t just eating a lot of carbs; I was eating tons of animal ingredients: cream, butter, lard. I was in my twenties, and I didn’t feel good. My boyfriend suggested I try going vegan, and after about a month of eating that way, I felt like I had boundless energy; I was happier, and felt great. I’ve been vegan ever since—it’s been eight years.
Most vegan baking at that time was dump and stir. There was no technique. Recipes weren’t from chefs; they were from people motivated by health. After working in a real pastry environment, I wanted to hold onto that beautiful process. I was able to replace milk and eggs and butter easily, but the one thing I was stuck on was yogurt.
So I started toying around with recipes, purely to use in baking. I went to Home Depot to put together micro yogurt-making equipment, bought random tools and strapped them together with bungee cords. I had crazy drill bits, a syphon for when you’re pumping gas. I was making it one quart at a time, experimenting with temperature, time, cultures. Meanwhile, I had other jobs working on food trucks, as a line cook, at bakeries, and at Smorgasburg—and I was doing pop-up markets with my baked goods. People heard that I was making my own yogurt, and started asking to buy it.
But there were roadblocks in my recipe, so I went to Cornell for their cultured dairy program. It’s typically a course for people in the dairy industry, who literally own cows, or own a dairy processing plant. Everyone there gave me the side-eye. But I could apply all the principals to my coconut milk, and I got the recipe to a place where it was something I could sell.
There are certain principles of dairy yogurt, though, that do not apply to coconut yogurt. One of the biggest obstacles: it costs a lot more to make. Ingredients are the number one expense. Most established vegan yogurt brands have tons of additives; if you compared the ingredients with the ingredients of something in the pudding section of a supermarket, you’d find that the only real difference is that there’s a little bit of culture added to the yogurts. I sympathize with those brands! In order to make the price comparable with dairy yogurts, they have to do it that way.
Sourcing for my yogurt was particularly difficult, because I didn’t just want organic—I wanted additive free. If you’re buying premade, commercial coconut milk, it probably has either carrageenan or guar gum, or some kind of emulsifier additive. We work with a family-run company that imports products from Asia, who found additive-free coconut milk through word-of-mouth connections in Thailand. It’s the most expensive coconut milk you can buy—it costs ten dollars a gallon, and that’s buying it wholesale at discount. The coconut water is even more expensive; it comes from the Philippines, and I found it by driving around and approaching warehouses.
Some people see the price and are offended. But if someone came here for one day and saw how much goes into it labor and ingredient wise, I think they would be like, Oh my god, you should be charging twenty dollars a cup.
People have asked me about investing. If it’s on the day that the yogurt machine is broken, I’m like, Yeah, take this whole company off my hands. But on a good day: no way. It was all self-funded. When you grow slowly, you grow sustainably. Even though I want to grow, I think it’s smarter to get bigger on my own, and when there’s more on the table, get a bigger piece of the pie.
Every chef out there has an idea for an amazing product. In the beginning, I thought that was the most important thing. It’s not. The most important things is understanding how to make this work from a business perspective. If you don’t know how to make money or market the product or cost things out, it doesn’t matter that your product is perfect. This is the advice I give to everyone starting a food business: don’t wait for things to be perfect. Don’t try to have absolutely everything on paper and formalized in the beginning because you’ll get so bogged down that you’ll never start.