Sunday, July 22, 2012

Yogurt Success

Able To Delegate

Interview with Jenny Ammirati
Co-Owner of Culture, An American Yogurt Company
331 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn NY

Interview by Kathryn Gordon

Kathryn:  Hi Jenny!   I’ve been back over here to eat yogurt periodically, but I haven’t seen you since you invited us to your launch, almost 1 ½ years ago!  How are you? 

Jenny:  Great.  As you can see, I just had a baby and yesterday we were in the NY Post! 
Unfortunately, Dannon apparently just opened a yogurt shop in Manhattan that looks like our location, and incorporates “Culture” in the name.  We have our attorney working on cease and desist letter.  We found out about it because our customers actually pointed it out to us. They thought we had opened a second location already.

Kathryn:   Wow.  That will be an interesting process to go through and I’m sure going to keep you busy.  

Kathryn:  Tell us a bit about your concept here at Culture.

Jenny:  Our mission is to provide a healthy snack alternative to those who crave strained yogurt combined with artisanal toppings.  Our fresh and frozen yogurt is made entirely on the premises from local and organically sourced milks.  We manufacture the probiotic yogurt and toppings to ensure everything is extremely fresh.  We are a certified dairy.

Essentially, we are a neighborhood shop (in Park Slope, Brooklyn).  We are open from the morning to provide breakfast and through to the evening.  We have communal tables for people to sit at, and we are starting to promote neighborhood artists through an art show installation.

One of the milk purveyors featured at Culture (for whole milk).  They also offer Organic Valley milk products in reduced fat, skim varieties.

Kathryn:  You’re open 7 days a week, for long days.  Do you live nearby?

Jenny:  I live about 20 minutes away, and can walk here.

Kathryn:  OK, let’s go back to your decision to open a business after attending the Pastry & Baking program at ICE (Institute of Culinary Management).  Did you always know it would be in yogurt?

Jenny:  No!   But while I was in school, I did make a lot of yogurt at home.  We experimented a lot with freezing it.  I had wanted to open a traditional bakery, but once my husband and I were talking about it, and we were actually eating our yogurt, we decided to open a yogurt business instead!

We realized that there is nothing else like this anywhere.  Nobody was pasteurizing their own milk using locally sourced products. 

Kathryn:  So it wasn’t like you attended some “yogurt school” somewhere…

Jenny:  No.  We both worked in finance before, and my husband still does.  I had worked in some restaurants.  We started by testing the product at home to find the way we wanted to do the manufacturing.  I did the research and found a machine from Holland to support our manufacturing method for the pasteurization process.

Close up of Culture’s frozen yogurt

Kathryn:  Which agencies regulate a “dairy?”

Jenny:  We are under the NY State Department of Agriculture and the NYC Department of Health.  We’re very regulated!  There are inspections all the time, so we’re used to it. 

The Department of Agriculture inspection is every 2 months, and they check the plant and test for bacteria in samples.  The Department of Health inspection is only once a year, and sometimes the inspectors change so a new person has to come up to speed.

Kathryn:  Coming out of a culinary school, was undergoing your first inspection for a new business scary?

Jenny:  Yes, but I’ve learned that if someone finds a little thing then you can fix it while it’s little, that’s exactly how you want the process to work. 

When I was researching our business, I went to the Department of Health and they worked with us.  They told us who else to talk to and what would be needed for our pretty unique set-up.  My staff is very well trained and know what the standards are that we must maintain.

Kathryn:  How do you find staff for Culture’s operations?

                                                          Menu board at Culture

Jenny:  I post a notice in the window.   My kitchen staff have been here long term.  There is more turnover in the front of the house.  I learned not to staff with high school kids, although college aged kids can be okay.  Everyone is on a part-time schedule.

Kathryn:  In the kitchen, does everyone do everything?

Jenny: No, the yogurt making process is pretty secret.  Everyone knows how to make toppings and our granola.  My manager knows how to pasteurize the milk and make our yogurts, as do I. 

Kathryn:  Can you tell us a little about the secret process?

Jenny: We have frequent milk deliveries.  Right now we’re pasteurizing overnight a few days a week, but we could do more.  The curds are then strained through synthetic cheesecloth bags for 7-8 hours to separate the whey. 

Kathryn: I know initially you had a lot of excess whey.  Have you found a way to utilize it?  I know in France they sometimes use it to feed pigs, but I imagine here in Park Slope that’s a bit of an impossibility…

Jenny:  We recently introduced a line of drinkable yogurts, and I incorporate some whey in the formula.

Kathryn:  You gave birth to your baby daughter only a few months ago!  How’s that going, managing a business and your first baby?

Jenny:  Coming from a finance background, I was already very organized.  To support your own business, you have to be organized.   If I become a little disorganized, everything falls apart.

Everything here is run via checklists.  There are separate checklists for opening, closing, deep cleaning schedules – everything!  I pop in here frequently to check that they are filled out, and signed with times noted down.

I can also monitor what’s happening via camera at my house.  I’m on the phone with staff every day.   What’s key to succeeding is delegation.  I knew that immediately and set everything up here to run that way.   The more responsibility you give people the better they are.  You also have to be good at interviewing people and determining which tasks they will be best at and can be trusted with.

After delegation, you need controls.  Only 2 people ever cash out the register, for example.  If there’s a problem, I can track it back via the security cameras.  So there haven’t been any problems.

View of the security cameras from Jenny’s iPhone, installed by a security company

Kathryn:  So what’s next for you here at Culture?

Jenny:  We are working with a realtor now and looking into a second location.  I’m not entirely set yet where it will be, or if it can be a retail only outlet.  The refrigeration here probably will not support a second location’s production. 

We currently have 800 square feet here.  It’s a limited space, and in the kitchen, only 3 people can work simultaneously or they are on top of each other. 

Kathryn:  To help promote your expansion, are you planning a lot of advertising?

Jenny:  Pretty much everything has been word-of-mouth.  It’s paid the rent!  We do have Facebook and Twitter, of course.  That’s how we found out about the Dannon venture.

Culture’s all word-of-mouth press

Kathryn:  Thanks Jenny!   Let us know what happens next with the cease and desist motion against a giant conglomerate versus a neighborhood dairy.  They must have totally loved your business model, if they’ve emulated it….


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