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Financial Post / Montreal Gazette Article

"Yogurt maker builds Cult following but aims for mainstream sales"

The chain of events that culminated in the creation of Cult Yogourt began 15 years ago, when Montreal resident Adam Coape-Arnold drank unfiltered water during a stay at a coffee plantation in Costa Rica.

“I got a parasite,” said Coape-Arnold, 37. “It did a number on my gastro-intestinal system. I lost my energy, my joie de vivre. I became lactose-intolerant. I never really got over it until I started taking probiotics.”

Coape-Arnold began taking probiotic pills four years ago on the advice of local naturopath and colon specialist Lucie Courchesne. “That was a lifesaver for me,” he said.

It also sparked an interest in probiotics, which led him to research yogurt, a food in which bacteria play a vital role and where Greek-style varieties are now the market driver in North America.

A year ago, while Coape-Arnold and girlfriend Eloïse Grondin-Bouchard, 33, were celebrating their first anniversary together in the Eastern Townships countryside, it dawned on them that yogurt could be their future.

Both had been working for others and were ready for a change.

Grondin-Bouchard studied nutrition at McGill, worked in the restaurant business, is passionate about food and has an eye for detail and quality, necessities for anyone attempting to stake out a niche in the competitive, closely-monitored and heavily-regulated food sector.

Coape-Arnold had toiled in marketing and branding for more than a decade and enhanced his business savvy by enrolling in McGill’s entrepreneur program. A runner-up finish in the 2014 Dobson Cup, McGill’s annual competition for startups, confirmed his grasp of the material and provided the couple with $9,000 in funding for their new venture.

Neither had made even a bowl of the stuff before deciding to become yogurtpreneurs, but that didn’t stop them.

Grondin-Bouchard set about testing recipes and ordering bacterial cultures from around the world. Positive feedback from tastings and sample giveaways led them to make their yogurt exclusively with milk from Jersey cows, something of a rare breed in Quebec. Coape-Arnold tracked down and approached some of the Quebec farmers who raised Jerseys and secured them as suppliers.

“Their milk has more protein and milk fat and is easier to digest. Tastes great, too,” Coape-Arnold said.

They named their company Cult because of the bacterial cultures contained in yogourt.

Last August, they concluded an agreement with an artisanal cheese producer in Farnham, Fromagerie des Cantons, to make use of his provincially licensed production facilities two days a week.

“We were lucky. We found people willing to help us give it a try,” Grondin-Bouchard said. “I feel now like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s been a lot of work, but things are happening fast.”

About 150 litres of raw milk straight from the farm arrives at the Farnham plant every Monday morning. By the time the couple drives back to Montreal in their refrigerated truck on Tuesday night (or Wednesday morning), it has been converted into 75 kilograms of yogurt packaged in 135-gram jars and 500-gram pouches.

“The yogurt is simply Jersey cow milk, our cultures, and fruit on the bottom. There’s no thickening or powders,” Coape-Arnold said.

Their yogurt has been sold commercially since December, in distinctive and reusable see-through glass jars, at a small number of higher-end local specialty stores including Boucherie Lawrence on St-Laurent Blvd., Fromagerie Atwater in the Atwater Market and Marché Park in Westmount. Even at a premium price of $3 a jar, sales have been brisk.

“A crappy yogurt often has liquid on top. Ours never does,” Coape-Arnold said.

“People are skeptical when they see Greek yogurt here, especially when they come from countries where it’s a traditional food like Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, so I tell them ‘taste ours and tell me.’ Hearing them say yes, that it reminds them of their childhood, is all I need to hear. Our marketing is, once you taste it, you’ll change brands.”

Coape-Arnold said they could sell more if they produced more, but they’re trying to manage growth carefully and methodically. After initially doing everything themselves, they now have two employees and one outside investor. Next week, they’ll more than double production, increasing their weekly milk delivery to 350 litres.

They’re also considering a major expansion in Farnham, possibly construction of their own plant, as demand for the product continues to grow.

“Yogurt is not a trend or fad that we’re trying to capitalize on,” he said. “It’s been around forever and there’s a reason. It contributes positively to health. Eighty-five per cent of women in Montreal buy yogurt weekly.”

Coape-Arnold, who says he didn’t drink milk or eat ice cream for 10 years because of the internal turmoil it used to cause him, figures he now drinks five litres of Jersey-cow milk every week. That’s another product he’d like to see Cult market commercially, along with cream cheese.

Getting the Cult brand into grocery stores, right alongside the giants of the food industry, also is on his to-do list.

“Grocery stores are where 95 per cent of all yogurt is sold, so clearly that’s important,” he said. “Our product may be artisanal, but the business plan isn’t. I want to go up against the big guys with a true, traditional strained Greek yogurt. Customers say that’s what is missing on the Quebec market, and they want it.”

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