Good People, Cool Things
Good People, Cool Things

Episode 40 · 1 year ago

Almond Yogurt and Family Business with Matt Billings


Matt Billings is the fourth generation of his family farm, which first started more than 100 years ago. And now, he's the founder of Ayo Yogurt, a vegan, dairy-free almond yogurt.

Welcome the good people cool things,the podcast featuring conversations with entrepreneurs, writers, musicians and other creatives. I'm yourhost, Joey held, and today's guest is Matt billings, the founderof Ao Yogurt, a delicious yogurt that doesn't use dairy or salt or coconut. Now they're all about almonds, which they grow at their fourth generation familyfarms in California Sunny San Joaquin Valley. The billings family has been producing organicCalifornia all mends for more than one hundred years, and we are going totalk all about the history of Matt's farm, how he got the idea for AoYogurt, what it's been like since launching the brand, perhaps a fewupcoming flavors as well. It'll all be delightful and a great time and superinformativeas well, and really just a good reminder to support your local brands andreally learn the history behind the companies that you support, because they are alwaysvery interesting and full of hard work. If you like to get in touchwith good people cool things, you can do so a couple different ways.Were on the facebook, the twitter and the instagram at GPCT podcast, forall of those. Always, feel free to drop a DM on instagram.You can do it on twitter too. I'll see both, but instagram dmsfor some reason just a little more exciting. You know it's it's like the RedArrow better than the blue little number. On twitter. You can also supportthe show via the shop. Good people, cool thingscom shop. Youlook super stylish with a shirt or grab a mugs. You can fill itup with AO yogurt. I can't imagine a better pairing. So why notgo ahead and do it as we start this conversation with Matt, I'm sureyou've been asked to give your elevator pitch before, so I'd love to hearyour elevator pitch about who you are and what you do, but I'd alsolike to hear the elevator that we're on while you're giving this pitch. Forme it'd probably have to be a really tall building and a long elevator,because I I ramble a lot and my kind of jump all over the place. But that that probably be the elevator. We'll ramble away then. I thinkwhat makes us unique from a amandok yogurt standpoint and a Dairy Alternative Yogurtis that one. We grow the almonds that go into the yogurt, sowe have our hands in the process from literally when the tree is planted throughit's thirty year life when it's harvested. It goes through our family facility.It's all family owned, our family facility where we call the almonds, weprocess the almonds, we turn it into an almond butter and almond milk andthen into the the actual yogurt itself. And then we're doing all the marketing. I mean we obviously have help and people that are helping us, butall the marketing and it's truly a product that is from our hearts and somethingwe really want to make the nutritious, wholesome and a product that tastes good, and I think that's what really started us and wanted us to do thismore than anything is we wanted a product that tastes good and a lot ofthe alternatives out there there were Almond Milky Yogurts, they didn't taste good,they weren't necessarily nutritious or very few almonds in them, a lot of waterfillers, flavors, sugars and in each cup of our yogurts twenty almonds,so it's almost an ounce almonds per cup, and that's really kind of a pitch. Then it tastes good. We wanted to develop a product that tastegood and doesn't just fill a niche but actually taste good and you want toeat it and come back for more.

I mean that's a I think that'sa good goal for any food product to have, if to taste good,but it's also good when you can put, yeah, twenty almonds in a packof Yogurt. It's pretty impressive and yeah, so you're getting a lotof good good nutrients and everything like that in addition to a good taste.Was that the biggest reason behind doing almond yogurt or where there there other underlyingpassions to we really wanted something that could take our product because we're growing organicalmonds. We wanted to take it from a commodity because that's how we typicallysell it them and it goes into a bin or a product and you nevercan tell it's our almonds from anyone else's. The Alma as we grow, welove them, we want to share them with the world. We wantedto become be develop a product that people would love and and and really embrace. So that's probably why we did the almonds Mo more than anything else.And almonds, I mean they're hugely nutritious, nutrient rich for their way. Soas far as as a plant product that packs more protein or fighting manyrival Flav and I'm going to the list kind of goes on, but it'sa really nutritious product. So that's that's the other reason we originally got aAmins, I mean generations ago. But yeah, let's go back to thefarm as a whole, because you mentioned sure fourth generation now, and doI have the date right? Nineteen thirteen is when the farm nine thirteen.I think it was probably a couple of years before that, but we alwayshave just rolled with one thousand nine hundred and thirteen because we jokingly call thirteenare lucky number. So the yeah, so the original company was founded,and I might have this wrong, but it was a Friday the thirteen andI think it was in May. One thousand nine hundred and thirteen. Sothat was a original kind of predecessor company that my great grandfather started before me. But yeah, so we've always kind of joked that thirteen are lucky number. I like that. I like that and so obviously that's more than ahundred years of being. I'm a very good mathematician. So yes, ahundred scent years since, I since the official start date, even if maybeit's a hundred nine, hundred and ten from the unofficial but obviously things havechanged, both in technology but also just the earth itself with with everything that'sgoing on from a global warming. That's a whole other discussion. But I'msure if you looked at how things were going on the farm back then versusnow, what are some of the most exciting changes that have happened over thethe course of these four generations? The most exciting things change over course fourgenerations. I'm here. That's kind of tough. My grandfather would tell mewhen he saw the first airplane and when he got electricity and the first car. So I think there's been a lot of things over the four generations.I think family, I think is as a family company and the values,I mean it's really family held values at our company still holds over four generationsand for that to still be a that's probably the honestly one of the moreexciting things, especially, I mean I'm probably going to get on a tangentnow, but through Covid I've seen so many of my friends and say therestaurant business that have been multigenerational families and and they're having to close or justsmall businesses that have been hit so hard. So I think to be able tobe fourth generation still have the same values that have really been pushed downfrom the founders of the company and to keep keep the I mean hopefully developa retail brand that can spread that to everybody not just be this kind ofhidden commodity brand. I think that's probably the most exciting thing. If ifwe can really push this yogurt out and...

...develop a following in and get peopleto my I don't I think you really need to believe it. They're prettyjust basic human values. That I think that would be really exciting if wecan get this and keep pushing it and get it, get it, youknow, national and worldwide for sure. And can you talk a little bitabout the harvest process, like when you're doing it, what goes into it, because I think that's super interesting but probably not as well known as whatthe final product turns out like? Sure, yeah, absolutely so. When Almanif most people are very familiar with peaches because you eat a peach.So a peach and almond or first cousins. So if you an almond tree,most almond trees are actually grafted onto peach rootstocks. It's almost all almondsthere, or Peach Almond Hybrid. So the harvest basically, I'm going toback up one second. I told you needs to be a long elevator.So bright a peach has that the fleshy part of the peach you eat.So on an almond that's called the hull hull and it's kind of a leatheryswadi consistency. Then in a peach, if you eat all the peach,you have a pit in the middle and that's the shell of the almond.And then inside that pit, if you crack that open, there's a littlenut and that's the nut in the almond. So when it comes to harvesting almonds, it usually we happens once a year we have almond bloom in Februarymarch time frame. It's beautiful. The our hole, all the fields turnedlikes beautiful whitish pink color and then the bloom will kind of fall down andyou have this petal fall and it covers the ground. Almost looks like freshsnow, and that happens in February march and then usually early August will startharvesting so that the fruit or the nut grows pretty quickly and we'll come inand the first thing we do is we have a machine that comes and shakesthe tree so it's looks like a big almost like a lobster claw, thatgrabs the tree, shakes it all the nuts fall. We let him dryin the sun for about a week and that dries that leathery outer hole,so the equivalent of the fleshy part of the peach. And then we'll comein and sweep the almonds into a row and then pick them up and thenfrom that stage we truck them to an Almond Holler sheller and that removes thewhole the outer leathery part. It removes the Shell and then it just hasthe kernel, the not itself, and will sort those get out any insectdamage, any foreign materials, sticks and things like that, chips and scratchesand and just basically sorted in and size it different sizes and then you'd getready for if it's going into the yogurt. Then we'll will blanch it, soyou take the skin off you we roast it or toast it and thenwe grind it into a fine almond butter and then mix that almond butter basicallywith water and that's what turns into the almond milk that we make into theto the Almond Yogurt. So that's kind of the process that you follow.All that, I think. So yeah, I'm going back a little bit tothe letting them dry in the sun. Is that for? Does that justmake it taste better or is that a necessity? Because if you triedto do stuff wont was wet, it would just be disastrous. It's reallythat leathery outer hole. So when you shake the almonds, the nut itselfis dry and it's usually ready to be so the the nut and the hole, the whole fruit is attached to a little it's called a pet uncle,so it's like a little stem kind of and it starts to the vascular tissuefrom the tree to that fruit that's attached...

...and causes the fruit to grow andgives it nutrition. As it starts to get close to harvest, it startsto separate and dry and the nut will usually dry up a lot faster andthat leathery outer hull will still be kind of moist or pliable. It's almostmore like suade consistency, and we dry it in the sun till it becomesmore of a like the equivalent of a Hawaiian potato chip. So it snapsand that allows the machinery when we take it, to take the hole inthe shell off, to remove it. Otherwise you can't really do it.It just kind of balls up and it's just there's really no technology to getthat off unless you dry it up a little bit. Got It. GotIt. And then as far as the turning it into almond butter, eventuallyAlmond Milk and then Almond Yogurt. Do you also have other products that arealmond butter almond milk, or is it either almonds by themselves or yogurt?That's pretty much momonds by itself or yogurt for us. Occasionally we'll do maybea slice or a dice or something like that, but the vast majority ofour product is it goes into a commodity product and you never know where itcame from really the history behind it. Maybe it's a been an. I'vebeen a amon's at a grocery store or chocolate bar, ice cream, somethinglike that. Yeah, I think that's a good distinction of keeping that historyand really showing like everything that has gone into the business so far and hopefullyfor more than a hundred years to come. and As far as the the yogurtitself, what's the sampling, sort of testing process like of picking thedifferent flavors that you have put out so far, and are there any onesthat you can talk about that might be coming up down the line? Sure, yeah, I think we wanted to keep it when we started out.I mean you'll go to the dairy isle where a lot of yogurts are sold, and you'll see kind of crazy flavors, and I mean some of them areokay. What we were really pushing for is historically yogurt sales it's vanilla, strawberry, blueberry and peach. That's I think it's somewhere on the orderof eighty five percent of all the yogurt sold and the world are those fourflavors and playing, which we don't have yet, but we're that's probably theone we're rolling out next would be a plane. No, sugar. ButI think what we really want to do when we were developing the flavors ofit is one we wanted a consistency and a taste that was great that wedidn't want to skimp anyway. They're we're using our organic fruit and our organicalmonds for it, and then we wanted to really not necessarily make it asubstitute for yogurt, but make it its own product in the sense. Sowe wanted to taste like almonds. So when you taste our yogurt, you'llget the fruit and it's a mild that's not an overthetop fruit in anyway,and then you'll get this toasted almond notes to so you know where it's comingfrom. We're not trying to hide the almonds and make it taste like aGreek yogurt. We're really trying to make a almond milk yogurt the taste likealmonds with the fruit flavors. So that's kind of was our goal in it. So probably the next one would be coming out that we're working on nowis a plane and it would be in a larger, larger format, likea sixteen ounce or something like that that people can use for smoothies and moreingredient base stuff, and then we're tossing around some other other flavor ideas,but nothing really is hit. Yeah, exactly. They're kind of all justideas at this point. What's the strangest... that you've tried, or atleast discussed? Oh, we were talking about one was like a chocolate orChata. So our her Tata Port Chatta, and Spain typically they use almonds andin Mexico a lot of its rice based. So it'd be that'd bemore like a dessert style yogurt, so would probably be a little bit sweeterwith the chocolate and that real horg shot of flavor to it. I cansay and I could say it. Yeah, I don't know, we go backand forth. Yeah, I think it's always like I think it's funeven just to experiment, even if it never sees the light of day,like just to see what kind of that'sn't even that like that crazy, butit's certainly a little little bit of a departure from what you have right now, but a true, oh, yeah, true from it from the basic foryeah, and you would talk about how you want it to taste likealmonds. was that something, that sort of balance that you nailed right away, or did that take a lot of kind of testing and revamping things alittle bit to get it to how it's? I mean, I think we're tryingto remember. I bet we've been at this for at least three years,so it was probably a solid year and a half, two years of experimentingand tasting and testing and different formulations before we finally got what we wanted.Know that it took a lot longer than I thought. I mean, inmy what's it's any time you're trying to make up a recipe in your head, you have kind of in your head your mind's eye, for lack ofa better turner, minds Palette, excuse me, what you kind of want, and it's always the back and forth to finally get there. I feelthat way with any kind of design work I do as well, which I'mnot a designer by any stretch of the imagination, but even if I'm justkind of doodling or something, I'm like, okay, I can draw this dogand son and that should be fine, and it's just a lot of lineson a paper that don't you can always more challenging and you think,yeah, I'm the same way. Well, that's something that I always like toask. As well as what's the most surprising part of running your business? Would it be how long things take when you think they should be quicker? Are there other elements that have surprised you? I'd say just that it'sa constant push to get it out there. I'm general are when we show itto consumers. Consumers really have been positive feedback about it. They liketo taste, like the consistency, they like it's lower sugar and you're tryingto get through distributors and through chain stores and the whole process is just very, very, very slow. And I am a patient person. By thesame time I'm probably a little impatience. That's probably been that's probably been thehardest part, is just you get a store to accept you and then itmight take six months to a year before you're finally in the store. Soyou're okay, let's go, come on, yeah, I've already sent the papersand I'm right, that's great. That's probably yeah, that's probably beenthe biggest struggle. And then I mean we have very little retail experience.So just it's any time you jump into something you don't have a lot offamiliar familiarity with, it's always a big learning curve, but we're getting therenice. Yeah, I think. I mean I also am not going toact like I have a lot of retail experience, but it seems like aworld where the more you get into it, the more you get to experience it, the better off you'll be from there. And have you found that? You would mentioned you have some restaurant friends that have had to either closepermanently or temporarily, at least during the covid pandemic. Have you found distributorsare similarly feeling these kinds of pains or worth these things that you would agreedto before March and are now kind of like getting rolling now? Yeah,we joked at the only time that would...

...have been worse to roll out anew retail brand would have been one thousand nine hundred and twenty nine, duringthe beginning of Great Depression. So what we found is a lot of thesmaller grocery stores, we've gone to the natural health health food stores. Theyhad great sales in the beginning of the year of the January, February,March and then really as covid kind of change people's buying habits, I guesswe notice those stores had had a tendency to really take a back seat andand I don't think people would go to him as much. I'm this ismy assumption to a little bit of an extent. It seemed people were maybegoing to the bigger chain stores and buying, you know, their staples that theywanted. And I'm sure people are financially a little bit shorter money andthey're trying to get staples and not necessarily try and trying new brands and goingwith the things they need and and are more comfortable with. So yeah,I think we definitely felt that a little bit. We had really, reallystrong sales and they've stagnated a little bit. Now they're all there starting to climbagain. So it's been it's definitely been a uphill battle, but we'restill climbing the hill, so that's a good sign. Yeah, that's verygood sign. Have you found a marketing strategy that has worked really well thatyou either were expecting to or our kind of, you know, a littlea little shocks that it's working so well I think we continually or pushing onon the product quality and flavor and just that it tastes good. And there'sthe transparency of when you're buying a yogurt from us, from the harvest allthe way through to you putting it on the spoon and enjoying it, it'scoming from us. So the transparency, I guess, of the of thefood chain or the transparency of the product. You're buying it from us, nota major conglomerant or someone who's making a yogurt and buying their offers fromwho knows who, you know, maybe in a foreign country, but you'rethe transparency of that, I think, and that it is a is afamily brand and we're standing behind it a hundred percent. I think that arekind of the too big marketing pushes that we have and we've seem to getthe most traction with, which is it's all the truth. I think it'sjust being transparent anytime in any brand. As long as you're transparent, Ithink that's honesty is always the best policy. I would agree a hundred percent andthink we've seen a lot of instances of a brand, either as awhole or in many cases a founder or someone really high up on the foodchain making comments that are less than transparent or, you know, offensive insome other way and really paying the price for it. So I think that'sa really good point, that being transparent and communicating regularly and frequently with yourcustomers about what you're doing and what's going into what they're buying is a reallyimportant part that hopefully most businesses are doing, but I would think, based onwhat I've seen, that not a lot are. Yeah, I'd agreegood deal. So we talked a little bit about some of the potential upcomingyogurts. Are there plans for other Almond Products to or is yogurt the mainfocus right now? I think for the foreseeable future it's yogurt until till wereally get a good cross section. I mean we're throughout the nation but kindof spotty throughout the nation and you can always go our web page a yogurtcom. We have a store locator so you can kind of find it, butI I think until we really get throughout the nation and distribution and a littlebit more dense than that distribution will probably stick with just the yogurt. Butwe've definitely had talks of. Yeah,...

...almond style cheese has dips of beenall other I mean there's all kinds of stuff that you could go to,but currently we're really the focus is yogurt. We want to really focus on whatwe know and what we're we feel we're good at right now and notget too many ducks in the water and lose our focus. Yeah, Ithink that's a good strategy. I know I always have twenty ideas at onceand I'm like no, let me, let me look at this one andand see see that one through. Yeah, the same reason I said, Ineed a long ele awesome. Okay, well, you're almost off the hook. Care but I always like to wrap up with a top three andI was torn a little bit on a top three here because I think there'sa couple of good ways we can go. So how about this? will gooutside of almonds and outside of a yogurt. What are three other snacksthat you like? That's a good question. I'm trying to think of what Isnack on. Ask the heart in questions over here. For sure,mean on honestly, I probably eat a lot of cheese. That's probably andI get that from my mother's father. He was always snacking on cheese.When after after work or you get home, you know always have a piece ofcheese. So probably cheese is a big one. I do like roastednuts a lot, so I guess I'm working almonds or nuts back into it, but not necessarily just almonds. I like plcomp roast of the cons roastedalmonds. Pistachos as are a big one for me. And Snack, Idon't really I'm not a big snacker, so that's kind of question. Tryto think of what else I snack on anytime we go to you go toa dinner party or an event and there's orders. No matter what the orderof is. I'm kind of bad they're so I'll eat anywhere. Derv that'sin front of me and usually ruin my dinner. So I guess the lastone would be any any or derve bar that there or plate that comes by. I'm usually the first one in line for it, so I guess that'skind of the last one. It truly is magical how even if you don'tlike it, you're just like well, let's hear you it. Yeah,it's horrible. Yeah, I might. Yeah, my family makes fun ofme because they say I'll eat anything. But yeah, like completely empathize withyou there. And then a follow up question based on your your nut answerof liking the roasted nuts. Have you seen the movie best in show theOh, yeah, so the scene where Harlem pepper is going through all ofhis nuts is that it does that like speak extra, extra real to youthere. I'm trying to remember that scene. So I'm gonna do and I justwatched best and show. I rewashed it with my kids well, maybetwo months ago. So what part of the movie was that in? It'swhile he's driving up to the show, so it's still in the early goingand he's just saying how he would just name yet's and drive his mom crazy. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Ye, now, yeah, that, yeah, I could. I could see that definitely. Yeah,I tried. I I just randomly like think about that, seem probably atleast a couple times a month, and I shared it with some people theother day and they were less than amused. Sim I guess I'm I'm alone inmy enjoyment. I thought it was a funny I you. Yeah,that's a good scene and I remember intivily. Just a great movie too, ingeneral. You know it, everyone. Go see it. If you're ifyou haven't seen it at go see best and show well, Matt,thank you so much for taking the time to chat and I feel like I'velearned a lot more about almonds and all that goes into making Almond Yogurt.And if people want to learn more about your story or check out a yogurt, you mentioned the website, but say... again. Where could people findyou in store us all that good stuff? Sure, yeah, it's Ao Aoyogurtcom and we're throughout the west coast, on the East Coast and Texas andthen kind of little spots in between and and every week we keep gettingmore stores to accept us. So hopefully, if we're not near you will beable astraordinary soon. Fantastic that. Thank you again. This was ablast, I preciate thank you very much. Absolutely and of course let's end witha joke, as we always do, and it's even nut themed, soI hope you haven't heard it. Shoot. What did the Allmond sayto the peanut that tried to fight it? You got me to go cash yououtside good after type people. I'll tell that's my kids tonight. Ilove it.

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