Good People, Cool Things
Good People, Cool Things

Episode 40 · 2 years ago

40: 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 your host, Joey held, and today's guest is Matt billings, the founder of 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 family farms in California Sunny San Joaquin Valley. The billings family has been producing organic California all mends for more than one hundred years, and we are going to talk all about the history of Matt's farm, how he got the idea for Ao Yogurt, what it's been like since launching the brand, perhaps a few upcoming flavors as well. It'll all be delightful and a great time and superinformative as well, and really just a good reminder to support your local brands and really learn the history behind the companies that you support, because they are always very interesting and full of hard work. If you like to get in touch with good people cool things, you can do so a couple different ways. Were on the facebook, the twitter and the instagram at GPCT podcast, for all of those. Always, feel free to drop a DM on instagram. You can do it on twitter too. I'll see both, but instagram dms for some reason just a little more exciting. You know it's it's like the Red Arrow better than the blue little number. On twitter. You can also support the show via the shop. Good people, cool thingscom shop. You look super stylish with a shirt or grab a mugs. You can fill it up with AO yogurt. I can't imagine a better pairing. So why not go ahead and do it as we start this conversation with Matt, I'm sure you've been asked to give your elevator pitch before, so I'd love to hear your elevator pitch about who you are and what you do, but I'd also like to hear the elevator that we're on while you're giving this pitch. For me 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 think what makes us unique from a amandok yogurt standpoint and a Dairy Alternative Yogurt is that one. We grow the almonds that go into the yogurt, so we have our hands in the process from literally when the tree is planted through it'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, we process the almonds, we turn it into an almond butter and almond milk and then 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, but all the marketing and it's truly a product that is from our hearts and something we 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 this more than anything is we wanted a product that tastes good and a lot of the 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 water fillers, 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 taste good and doesn't just fill a niche but actually taste good and you want to eat it and come back for more.

I mean that's a I think that's a 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 pack of Yogurt. It's pretty impressive and yeah, so you're getting a lot of 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 underlying passions to we really wanted something that could take our product because we're growing organic almonds. We wanted to take it from a commodity because that's how we typically sell it them and it goes into a bin or a product and you never can tell it's our almonds from anyone else's. The Alma as we grow, we love them, we want to share them with the world. We wanted to 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. So as far as as a plant product that packs more protein or fighting many rival Flav and I'm going to the list kind of goes on, but it's a really nutritious product. So that's that's the other reason we originally got a Amins, I mean generations ago. But yeah, let's go back to the farm as a whole, because you mentioned sure fourth generation now, and do I 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 always have just rolled with one thousand nine hundred and thirteen because we jokingly call thirteen are lucky number. So the yeah, so the original company was founded, and I might have this wrong, but it was a Friday the thirteen and I think it was in May. One thousand nine hundred and thirteen. So that 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 a hundred years of being. I'm a very good mathematician. So yes, a hundred scent years since, I since the official start date, even if maybe it's a hundred nine, hundred and ten from the unofficial but obviously things have changed, both in technology but also just the earth itself with with everything that's going on from a global warming. That's a whole other discussion. But I'm sure if you looked at how things were going on the farm back then versus now, what are some of the most exciting changes that have happened over the the course of these four generations? The most exciting things change over course four generations. I'm here. That's kind of tough. My grandfather would tell me when 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 generations and for that to still be a that's probably the honestly one of the more exciting things, especially, I mean I'm probably going to get on a tangent now, but through Covid I've seen so many of my friends and say the restaurant business that have been multigenerational families and and they're having to close or just small businesses that have been hit so hard. So I think to be able to be fourth generation still have the same values that have really been pushed down from the founders of the company and to keep keep the I mean hopefully develop a retail brand that can spread that to everybody not just be this kind of hidden commodity brand. I think that's probably the most exciting thing. If if we can really push this yogurt out and...

...develop a following in and get people to my I don't I think you really need to believe it. They're pretty just basic human values. That I think that would be really exciting if we can get this and keep pushing it and get it, get it, you know, national and worldwide for sure. And can you talk a little bit about 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 what the final product turns out like? Sure, yeah, absolutely so. When Alman if 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 almonds there, or Peach Almond Hybrid. So the harvest basically, I'm going to back 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 leathery swadi 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 little nut 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 February march time frame. It's beautiful. The our hole, all the fields turned likes beautiful whitish pink color and then the bloom will kind of fall down and you have this petal fall and it covers the ground. Almost looks like fresh snow, and that happens in February march and then usually early August will start harvesting so that the fruit or the nut grows pretty quickly and we'll come in and the first thing we do is we have a machine that comes and shakes the tree so it's looks like a big almost like a lobster claw, that grabs the tree, shakes it all the nuts fall. We let him dry in 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 come in and sweep the almonds into a row and then pick them up and then from that stage we truck them to an Almond Holler sheller and that removes the whole the outer leathery part. It removes the Shell and then it just has the kernel, the not itself, and will sort those get out any insect damage, any foreign materials, sticks and things like that, chips and scratches and and just basically sorted in and size it different sizes and then you'd get ready for if it's going into the yogurt. Then we'll will blanch it, so you take the skin off you we roast it or toast it and then we grind it into a fine almond butter and then mix that almond butter basically with water and that's what turns into the almond milk that we make into the to 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 to the letting them dry in the sun. Is that for? Does that just make it taste better or is that a necessity? Because if you tried to do stuff wont was wet, it would just be disastrous. It's really that leathery outer hole. So when you shake the almonds, the nut itself is 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 tissue from the tree to that fruit that's attached...

...and causes the fruit to grow and gives it nutrition. As it starts to get close to harvest, it starts to separate and dry and the nut will usually dry up a lot faster and that leathery outer hull will still be kind of moist or pliable. It's almost more like suade consistency, and we dry it in the sun till it becomes more of a like the equivalent of a Hawaiian potato chip. So it snaps and that allows the machinery when we take it, to take the hole in the 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 get that off unless you dry it up a little bit. Got It. Got It. And then as far as the turning it into almond butter, eventually Almond Milk and then Almond Yogurt. Do you also have other products that are almond 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 maybe a slice or a dice or something like that, but the vast majority of our product is it goes into a commodity product and you never know where it came from really the history behind it. Maybe it's a been an. I've been a amon's at a grocery store or chocolate bar, ice cream, something like that. Yeah, I think that's a good distinction of keeping that history and really showing like everything that has gone into the business so far and hopefully for more than a hundred years to come. and As far as the the yogurt itself, what's the sampling, sort of testing process like of picking the different flavors that you have put out so far, and are there any ones that 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 are okay. 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 order of eighty five percent of all the yogurt sold and the world are those four flavors and playing, which we don't have yet, but we're that's probably the one we're rolling out next would be a plane. No, sugar. But I think what we really want to do when we were developing the flavors of it is one we wanted a consistency and a taste that was great that we didn't want to skimp anyway. They're we're using our organic fruit and our organic almonds for it, and then we wanted to really not necessarily make it a substitute for yogurt, but make it its own product in the sense. So we wanted to taste like almonds. So when you taste our yogurt, you'll get 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 coming from. We're not trying to hide the almonds and make it taste like a Greek yogurt. We're really trying to make a almond milk yogurt the taste like almonds 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 now is a plane and it would be in a larger, larger format, like a sixteen ounce or something like that that people can use for smoothies and more ingredient 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 just ideas at this point. What's the strangest... that you've tried, or at least discussed? Oh, we were talking about one was like a chocolate or Chata. So our her Tata Port Chatta, and Spain typically they use almonds and in Mexico a lot of its rice based. So it'd be that'd be more like a dessert style yogurt, so would probably be a little bit sweeter with the chocolate and that real horg shot of flavor to it. I can say and I could say it. Yeah, I don't know, we go back and forth. Yeah, I think it's always like I think it's fun even 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, but it'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 for yeah, and you would talk about how you want it to taste like almonds. 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 a little bit to get it to how it's? I mean, I think we're trying to 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 experimenting and 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, in my 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 of a better turner, minds Palette, excuse me, what you kind of want, and it's always the back and forth to finally get there. I feel that way with any kind of design work I do as well, which I'm not a designer by any stretch of the imagination, but even if I'm just kind of doodling or something, I'm like, okay, I can draw this dog and son and that should be fine, and it's just a lot of lines on 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 to ask. 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's a constant push to get it out there. I'm general are when we show it to consumers. Consumers really have been positive feedback about it. They like to taste, like the consistency, they like it's lower sugar and you're trying to get through distributors and through chain stores and the whole process is just very, very, very slow. And I am a patient person. By the same time I'm probably a little impatience. That's probably been that's probably been the hardest part, is just you get a store to accept you and then it might take six months to a year before you're finally in the store. So you're okay, let's go, come on, yeah, I've already sent the papers and I'm right, that's great. That's probably yeah, that's probably been the 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 of familiar familiarity with, it's always a big learning curve, but we're getting there nice. Yeah, I think. I mean I also am not going to act like I have a lot of retail experience, but it seems like a world 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 close permanently or temporarily, at least during the covid pandemic. Have you found distributors are similarly feeling these kinds of pains or worth these things that you would agreed to 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 a new retail brand would have been one thousand nine hundred and twenty nine, during the beginning of Great Depression. So what we found is a lot of the smaller grocery stores, we've gone to the natural health health food stores. They had 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 guess we notice those stores had had a tendency to really take a back seat and and I don't think people would go to him as much. I'm this is my assumption to a little bit of an extent. It seemed people were maybe going to the bigger chain stores and buying, you know, their staples that they wanted. And I'm sure people are financially a little bit shorter money and they're trying to get staples and not necessarily try and trying new brands and going with the things they need and and are more comfortable with. So yeah, I think we definitely felt that a little bit. We had really, really strong sales and they've stagnated a little bit. Now they're all there starting to climb again. So it's been it's definitely been a uphill battle, but we're still climbing the hill, so that's a good sign. Yeah, that's very good sign. Have you found a marketing strategy that has worked really well that you either were expecting to or our kind of, you know, a little a little shocks that it's working so well I think we continually or pushing on on the product quality and flavor and just that it tastes good. And there's the transparency of when you're buying a yogurt from us, from the harvest all the way through to you putting it on the spoon and enjoying it, it's coming from us. So the transparency, I guess, of the of the food chain or the transparency of the product. You're buying it from us, not a major conglomerant or someone who's making a yogurt and buying their offers from who knows who, you know, maybe in a foreign country, but you're the transparency of that, I think, and that it is a is a family brand and we're standing behind it a hundred percent. I think that are kind of the too big marketing pushes that we have and we've seem to get the most traction with, which is it's all the truth. I think it's just being transparent anytime in any brand. As long as you're transparent, I think that's honesty is always the best policy. I would agree a hundred percent and think we've seen a lot of instances of a brand, either as a whole or in many cases a founder or someone really high up on the food chain making comments that are less than transparent or, you know, offensive in some other way and really paying the price for it. So I think that's a really good point, that being transparent and communicating regularly and frequently with your customers about what you're doing and what's going into what they're buying is a really important part that hopefully most businesses are doing, but I would think, based on what I've seen, that not a lot are. Yeah, I'd agree good deal. So we talked a little bit about some of the potential upcoming yogurts. Are there plans for other Almond Products to or is yogurt the main focus right now? I think for the foreseeable future it's yogurt until till we really get a good cross section. I mean we're throughout the nation but kind of 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, but I I think until we really get throughout the nation and distribution and a little bit more dense than that distribution will probably stick with just the yogurt. But we've definitely had talks of. Yeah,...

...almond style cheese has dips of been all 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 what we know and what we're we feel we're good at right now and not get too many ducks in the water and lose our focus. Yeah, I think that's a good strategy. I know I always have twenty ideas at once and I'm like no, let me, let me look at this one and and see see that one through. Yeah, the same reason I said, I need a long ele awesome. Okay, well, you're almost off the hook. Care but I always like to wrap up with a top three and I was torn a little bit on a top three here because I think there's a couple of good ways we can go. So how about this? will go outside of almonds and outside of a yogurt. What are three other snacks that you like? That's a good question. I'm trying to think of what I snack on. Ask the heart in questions over here. For sure, mean on honestly, I probably eat a lot of cheese. That's probably and I 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 of cheese. So probably cheese is a big one. I do like roasted nuts 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 roasted almonds. Pistachos as are a big one for me. And Snack, I don't really I'm not a big snacker, so that's kind of question. Try to think of what else I snack on anytime we go to you go to a dinner party or an event and there's orders. No matter what the order of is. I'm kind of bad they're so I'll eat anywhere. Derv that's in front of me and usually ruin my dinner. So I guess the last one 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's kind of the last one. It truly is magical how even if you don't like it, you're just like well, let's hear you it. Yeah, it's horrible. Yeah, I might. Yeah, my family makes fun of me because they say I'll eat anything. But yeah, like completely empathize with you there. And then a follow up question based on your your nut answer of liking the roasted nuts. Have you seen the movie best in show the Oh, yeah, so the scene where Harlem pepper is going through all of his nuts is that it does that like speak extra, extra real to you there. I'm trying to remember that scene. So I'm gonna do and I just watched best and show. I rewashed it with my kids well, maybe two months ago. So what part of the movie was that in? It's while he's driving up to the show, so it's still in the early going and 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 at least a couple times a month, and I shared it with some people the other day and they were less than amused. Sim I guess I'm I'm alone in my enjoyment. I thought it was a funny I you. Yeah, that's a good scene and I remember intivily. Just a great movie too, in general. You know it, everyone. Go see it. If you're if you 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've learned 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 find you in store us all that good stuff? Sure, yeah, it's Ao Ao yogurtcom and we're throughout the west coast, on the East Coast and Texas and then kind of little spots in between and and every week we keep getting more stores to accept us. So hopefully, if we're not near you will be able astraordinary soon. Fantastic that. Thank you again. This was a blast, I preciate thank you very much. Absolutely and of course let's end with a joke, as we always do, and it's even nut themed, so I hope you haven't heard it. Shoot. What did the Allmond say to the peanut that tried to fight it? You got me to go cash you outside good after type people. I'll tell that's my kids tonight. I love it.

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