Saga Dairy: We want to bring Icelandic yogurt to the mainstream

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Viking Icelandic Yogurts come in plain ('pure'), vanilla, strawberry, blueberry and cucumber mint varieties
Viking Icelandic Yogurts come in plain ('pure'), vanilla, strawberry, blueberry and cucumber mint varieties
First came Siggi’s, then Smári Organics. But can the husband and wife team behind Saga Dairy (Viking Icelandic Yogurt) – the latest entrants to the niche, but growing ‘Icelandic-style’ yogurt category in the US – emulate their success?  

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.

siggi's
Siggi’s, which is based in New York City, produces it yogurts from plants in Yates County, New York, and Richland County, Wisconsin. The yogurts are available nationwide in stores including Whole Foods, Wegmans, Kroger and H.E.B.

“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.”  

Phil and Therese Meers
Phil Meers - who was raised on a farm just south of Chicago - worked in corporate restructuring before founding Saga Dairy, while Therese is a Harvard-educated attorney who specialized in providing legal assistance to small businesses and entrepreneurs

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?

Viking Icelandic yogurt cucumber mint
The cucumber mint variant works well in the morning, say Saga Dairy founders Phil and Therese Meers

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.

smari
Smári Organics is based in Petaluma, CA, but makes its yogurt in Wisconsin. Its products are available at Whole Foods, The Fresh Market, National Co+op Grocers, Costco, and other chains nationwide.

“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​.”

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1 comment

Got Skyr?

Posted by B. Purington,

Skyr is my new passion since returning from Iceland last month. Good thing I found Siggi's--a little too tart, but it will feed my addiction for now. I tried my hand at making a batch yesterday--almost perfect, could be a little thicker. I googled Skyr at Mariano's which led me to Viking Icelandic yogurt. I am going out first thing tomorrow to buy some. Welcome to the neighborhood!

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