Startup Elli Quark, founded by Preya Patel Bhakta , debuted its German-style fresh cheese at the Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA earlier in March. The idea for the company germinated from Preya’s experimentation in her home kitchen.
“We started looking to eat more healthy and we wanted to lose a few pounds and our nutritionist recommended eating cottage cheese to make sure we were getting enough protein in out diet. But we realized that cottage cheese has a lot of sodium and we weren’t too crazy about the texture. And with the Greek yogurt, there is actually a lot of sugar in the flavored products,” Preya said.
“I started getting creative in the kitchen, rinsing the cottage cheese, blending it and adding fresh fruit and natural sweeteners to it and it tasted so good and I thought, why isn’t there something like this on the market? Our research led us to conclude that what I was making in my kitchen was quite similar to quark,” she said.
Cheese, not yogurt
Quark, pronounced “kvark” in German, is a mild, smooth, fresh cheese, and unlike cottage cheese, to which it bears some resemblance, it is typically made without rennet and salt. In German dairy cases, quark generally is marketed with a smooth, homogeneous consistency similar to the Greek yogurts currently popular in the North American market. But unlike yogurt, the production of quark does not involve lactic acid bacteria, so the resulting product lacks yogurt’s typically sour, tart taste.
“In India we eat something similar to quark,” said Preya's husband, Sachin Bhakta. “When we have feasts back home, our mothers made it.”
Shrikhand is the strained cheese to which Sachin referred. Paneer is another, more familiar Indian version of fresh milk cheese, is usually drained and pressed to form a firmer texture that can be cubed for curries. Quark in northern European cuisine is generally used where North American cooks might use cream cheese, in pie filling or in savory applications as a filling for dumplings or a base for sauces, for example.
“We flew out to Germany for a few weeks to study the product, the market, how it was made, how people were eating it. We fell in love with it and started right away with the branding and the market research and how to best launch it in the US,” Preya said.
Different cows, different milk
The couple is manufacturing the product in a dedicated facility in southern California. Some manufacturing modifications from how the product was traditionally made in Germany were necessary, Sachin said. German dairy cows are typically eating grass in outdoor pastures, he said, while California dairies are often feeding cows in stalls. The differences in the milk were noticeable, but he said he thinks they nailed it when it comes to the texture and flavor of the product.
“We had a lot of German people come by the booth at Expo West and sample the product. They were in childhood memory lane,” Sachin said.
The initial range of products features five flavors and features from 80 to 90 calories per servering, 14 to 17 grams of protein and no fat. And the product is made with all natural, non GMO ingredients, the couple said.
The product, which will go into wide distribution in the natural channel in April, will capitalize to some extent on the popularity of Greek yogurt and consumer acceptance of dense, high-protein dairy products. But it will have a unique shelf positioning that will help it compete in an increasingly crowded market space, Preya said.
“I think there is a great opportunity because we will be sitting on the cottage cheese shelf. So we don’t really have a close competitor because we will be the only quark there,” she said.