Phil and Therese Meers don’t hail from Iceland, so are taking a novel approach to marketing their high-protein ‘skyr-style’ yogurts, by going back in time to present yogurt as the fuel that powered the Vikings on their epic voyages across the Atlantic, and inviting fans to ‘Unleash your inner Viking’.
Saga Dairy – which has opted for a Viking ship rather than the IKEA-style designs you’ll see on Smari Organics, for example – is, it says, re-introducing Americans to a product that the Vikings first brought to their shores more than 1,000 years ago:
“In The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders, the exchange of milk and yogurt products is vividly recounted… After a thousand years, we are thrilled to be able to bring Viking Icelandic Yogurt back to America for you.”
We don’t need to add as much sugar
But the fact that Saga Dairy (which is based out of Boston and Chicago and manufactures its products in upstate New York) is a family-run business producing a high-quality product is more important to retail buyers – and consumers – than whether the founders are Icelandic, Therese Meers tells FoodNavigator-USA.
“People really like the fact that we’re a family owned business and they want to support what we’re trying to do, which is make high protein, lower sugar yogurt more accessible, something you can eat daily, not a treat [each 6oz pot has 16-19g protein and 5-14g sugar].
“But they also really like the taste and the texture. We spent a long time working with experts at the University of Illinois to understand the cultures to use and get the recipe exactly right.
“Because we’re taking out more of the whey [Viking Icelandic Yogurt is strained for longer than Greek yogurt, so requires four cups of milk to make one cup of yogurt vs three for Greek yogurt, she says], we don’t need to add as much sugar.”
As for the flavors, while cucumber mint might sound a little off the wall, it’s one of the things that impressed buyers about the brand, which is “bringing something new and unique” to the category, she adds.
“It’s actually moving well in stores like Mariano’s – people really like it in the morning.”
Not everyone can afford to spend $2-3 on a cup of yogurt
Consumers also like the fact that Viking comes in 6oz cups (many other players in the category have reduced their cup sizes to 5.3oz), but still retails at a lower price ($1.59 or $1.25 on sale), she says. “Not everyone can afford to spend $2-3 on a cup of yogurt. We want to bring Icelandic yogurt to the mainstream, to make it something you can afford to eat every day.”
While it’s hard to do this when you are operating on such a small scale, the Meers say they have a clear path to profitability and have bootstrapped from the outset, staying with Phil’s parents and Therese’s sister, and “saving every penny we made”.
There’s been a lot of fingernail chewing
So what progress have they made to date?
It’s very early days– they only went into commercial production in January – but so far the product is available in around 130 stores in greater Chicago including Mariano’s, Sunset and Treasure Island and is available in select Schnucks stores in Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa.
And repeat orders are coming in, says Phil. “There’s been a lot of fingernail chewing, and of course there are times we lie awake at night thinking what on earth have we got into, like all entrepreneurs, but we’re getting some really encouraging data [re-orders].”
You always have to ask, will this deal work for me, and if not, you must be able to walk away
When it comes to navigating the notoriously treacherous waters of the grocery market, where many firms find themselves effectively paying customers to take their product, rather than the other way around, being able to say NO as well as YES is very important, says Therese, who says her legal background has served her well in this respect.
“You always have to ask, will this deal work for me, and if not, you must be able to walk away. In the legal profession, no deal is better than a bad deal. You hear these horror stories, so you have to know the parameters you are working within and know when something doesn’t make sense for you.
“You also need to build trusting relationships. We are working with some fantastic retailers that really want to work with small businesses and support what we’re doing.”
Going into business with your spouse…
While going into business with your spouse is not for the faint-hearted, the Meers say they have complementary skills, with Phil doing more “sales and outreach” and Therese proving the most adept at the paperwork/financial side of the enterprise, although they both attend meetings with key customers and do demos together.
According to Phil: “Everyone always thinks you need to sell, sell, sell, but if you are not doing the paperwork that underpins all that, your business will collapse.”