Developed by Boston natives and childhood friends Drew Harrington and Amanda Klane, Yasso was the world’s first frozen Greek yogurt bar on the market when it made its debut in spring 2011, and its rise since then has been nothing short of meteoric.
While most new products languish on the shelves for months at a handful of stores before buyers decide whether to give them the boot or expand listings, Yasso has secured listings in a whopping 15,000 stores nationwide from Walmart to Costco, less than two years after launch.
Not bad going considering Harrington and Klane are still just 27 years old. (Oh, and they were both division one athletes at college - still not jealous?)
To be fair, Klane - armed with a degree in business management - was probably better positioned than most 20-somethings to get a food product to market, given her experience working in her father’s food brokerage business.
Meanwhile, both Klane and Harrington were lucky to be able to tap friends and family for cash to get their enterprise off the ground.
However, while distributing other people’s products is one thing, coming up with a new one of your own that actually makes it in a market where the vast majority of new products fail is quite another, so it’s hard to overestimate their achievement.
Put a pot of Greek yogurt in your freezer, and it freezes like a rock…
So how did they do it?
The initial challenge - having identified a gap in the market - was coming up with a zero fat, low sugar, low-calorie, but high protein formulation that tasted as good as regular Greek yogurt, but could be produced on a commercial scale, says Klane.
If this seems straightforward, just put a pot of Chobani in the freezer and see what you end up with (which explains why you’ll find milk protein concentrate and nonfat dry skim milk on the ingredients list for a smoother texture and extra protein; plus guar gum, carrageenan and locust bean gum as stabilizers to prevent ice crystal formation and for a creamier texture).
“Put a pot of Greek yogurt in your freezer, and it freezes like a rock”, says Klane, who worked with The Food Processing Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to come up with the winning formula in 2009/10.
“We spent a lot of time trying to get the texture right.”
The original products - 75g bars with 70 calories, 6g of protein and zero fat in three flavors (strawberry, blueberry and raspberry) with Greek yogurt listed second on the ingredients list and rBST-free milk - immediately impressed retail buyers, who were seeing sales of Greek yogurt explode in their chillers and were keen to see if that success could be replicated in the frozen novelty category, says Klane.
So who is buying them?
While women are the biggest fans, surprising numbers of children and men are also tucking into the bars, says Harrington, who points to a recent edition of Men’s Health featuring Yasso as one of the top 18 frozen foods for men.
Meanwhile, although frozen novelties are fairly seasonal, with sales spiking in hot weather, Yasso sells well throughout the year, and is being deliberately positioned as a healthy yet indulgent snack to eat at any time of the day or year, says Harrington.
“With the same calories and protein as an egg, Yasso bars are great way to jump-start your metabolism at breakfast, fuel your body as pre or post workout snack or even keep you full between meals.”
As for marketing on a shoestring, big advertising campaigns were a no no, and the focus instead has been on sampling and PR, engaging with fans via social media, and participating in some key trade shows such as Expo West, Expo West and the NFRA (National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods) convention, he says.
“We’ve done a lot of work on facebook, twitter and instagram, but if you are going to use them you have to constantly evolve and try new things.”
First mover advantage only gets you so far
While food industry heavyweights from ConAgra (Healthy Choice), to General Mills (Yoplait) and Adonia have recently piled into the frozen Greek yogurt bar/individual pot category, Yasso is still holding its own, says Harrington.
“We were the first to market, but we know we have to keep fresh to stand out. The frozen novelty category is incredibly dynamic and competition is very fierce, and it’s always hard for a start-up because you don’t have the money [that big brands do] to spend on marketing, although we’ve done a lot of sampling.
“So we keep innovating. We launched frozen smoothies in 2012 and we’re adding three new flavors of frozen bars (coconut, mango and vanilla bean) next month based on conversations with consumers during a national sampling tour and surveys we conducted on facebook.
“We’ve also updated our packaging to give the brand a cleaner look and help it stand out on shelf, tweaked the recipe to remove soy lecithin (an allergen) and made further improvements to the texture.”
Be open and listen to advice, but stay true to what you believe in
So what advice would they give to other budding entrepreneurs looking to stand out in the food and beverage market?
Above all, says Klane, run your own race.
“My advice would be don’t give up. Be open and listen to advice, but stay true to what you believe in.”