Coco-nuts for Yogurt

It took Anita Shepherd more than two years to fine tune the recipe for her coconut-based yogurt. After turning vegan seven years ago, Anita spent her pastry chef career mastering vegan desserts and finding plant-based alternative ingredients for crowd-pleasing dessert recipes that were typically heavy with creams. But the one thing that just kept stumping her was how to make the perfect vegan cheesecake and how to substitute yogurt in a recipe. Her drive to solve the problem resulted in her pulling together a business plan to start her own yogurt company. And of course, as fate would have it, Anita’s business loan was approved at the same time she found out she was pregnant with Ramona (now 9 months) which makes Anita one of the most merciless deadline-slaying and goal-conquering mamapreneurs I have met: she literally launched a business during her pregnancy and has already expanded the company to include 7 employees less than a year later.

A typical vegan yogurt has between 12-20 ingredients, often included to keep the cooking process cost competitive with mass-produced yogurts. Anita’s yogurt has only 3 ingredients in comparison (coconut milk, coconut water, and live probiotic cultures) which makes it less “heavy” and gives it a more “true” yogurt consistency. Sure, that comes with a premium price, but it’s a no-brainer choice for many chefs who care about what’s going into their food or everyday customers that want to control what’s going into their bodies. The yogurt has the delicious tanginess and texture of a true creamline Greek yogurt paired with a rich natural coconut smell and taste that will make you want to jump into a bathtub of the stuff. After watching Anita pull together a trifle for Food Curated, I dived into making my own lemon cake and the results were delicious.

The price premium and niche has not held this yogurt back. In less than a year on the shelves, Anita’s yogurt can be found in several high-end stores, including Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca, and also in local specialty stores such as Brooklyn Kitchen, Union Market, and Brooklyn Fare. She’s amassed a number of food service clients, who use her product regularly in their cooking, such as Smorgasburg heavy hitters Lumpia Shack and Chickpea & Olive, and meal deliveries services such as Blue Apron and Barley & Oats (also a postpartum service). While her yogurt is often used to keep a meal vegan-friendly, she even has a chef customer who uses her yogurt to marinate chicken, as the coconut seeps in to create a flavor he can’t get elsewhere.

In September, Anita introduced “grab-n-go” versions of her yogurt – 4.5 oz containers with fruit on the bottom (mango or blueberry) that are rolling out in stores as the perfect snack. This expansion will open her up to a world of new customers but she’s mainly looking forward to spending more time with her growing little girl, and can’t wait until the day that she can share the business with her.

Here’s my Q&A with Anita:

Becoming pregnant and implementing a business plan happened hand in hand for you. How did your pregnancy drive you through the process?

In this day and age, there’s pressure on women to think about how they can also be providers of the family and having a baby accelerates that, especially in NYC where you need two incomes per household. There’s also something beautiful about leaving a legacy or some kind of “inheritance” for your child that you have created. I like the idea of creating a brand my daughter could one day take over, if she wishes, as a family business. Also, my due date was the ultimate deadline! It felt like whatever I did not get done might not happen after that day, and I wanted to make it the best it could be. Fortunately, I found out that life keeps happening even after baby, and things that did not go according to plan eventually worked themselves out with the help of others.

You had a short amount of time to pull everything together - to build a kitchen, processing facility and launch yogurt on shelves. You were fighting against time and a growing bump. What did that involve?

The due date meant I had a lot to do – I had to run around town looking at large industrial warehouses and work spaces, research and negotiate prices from large processing equipment, stay on budget, stock up on supplies, oversee the build-out, and also hire and interview staff who would come on as I was about to go on maternity leave – which is intimidating in itself and takes a lot of drive.

Manufacturing is kind of a "man’s game" at this point and for the first time I was negotiating deals and overseeing work by men who mostly deal with other men—but my pregnancy helped me feel powerful, which was vital in that situation. The next priority was to have employees trained and ready to go for when my baby arrived – all this with a short deadline is tiring, but the excitement kept me going. I had to make tough decisions every day to keep it moving.

Fortunately for me and my business, I had a crazy influx of Pitocin in my last trimester. The same drive that helped me decorate and have the baby’s room ready in one week helped me turn the floor plan for the factory into a reality. It is amazing what female hormones can accomplish, and I think that all of this was possible because of, not in spite of, being pregnant.

At the end of the pregnancy you had a rock star manager in place and a day of training to get through… and you had a surprise that day. Tell us about it!

It was a week before my due date. I’d had two contractions that morning but assumed it was false labor. I bought a bag on wheels on the way to work so I wouldn’t have to carry my stuff, thinking that would help the feeling go away. The production manager and I were going over the production process in detail and what to do if I was gone, but the contractions kept coming, so I tried to breathe through them while we completed the training day.

I began to time the contractions. Oh no. It was the real deal! Stalling, I tried to play it off like I was just being weird (like suddenly getting up and walking in circles) but it was becoming more noticeable. That evening my uncle came to help fix a piece of equipment and his friend’s wife immediately noticed I was in labor and pointed it out to everyone in the room! That’s when my husband took me home.

Has having had a baby helped make you more organized and goal-oriented?

In the first months nothing mattered but her.  It would be snowing like crazy outside and we would just be tucked into our cocoon of love, not going anywhere, just watching the world go by. This physical separation helped me to remove myself and “pause” to make better decisions. And I had the luxury of doing so by phone while the newly-assembled Anita’s Yogurt team got the job done. Things that would have freaked me out, or sent me into panic mode no longer did so. At times I worried that I was becoming “numb”, but looking back, I was just more even-keeled-- and still am.

My due date was the ultimate deadline, but now that I have Ramona I have to self-impose time restraints and deadlines in order to not miss out on mommy time. I’ve played around with my schedule –working long hours one week in order to create more space to enjoy baby activities and meet-ups after deadlines. It’s still a work in progress.

Finally, if you had 3 tips for other mothers that you wish someone would have told you, what would they be?

  1. Stay in bed as much as possible for two weeks after the birth.  (To be fair, my Doula did tell me this and I did not listen.) Do not get up and try to do stuff like cook, clean, organize or hang out with guests just because you feel okay. I almost caused myself permanent damage by doing too much stuff. You just have to switch off that part of your brain and embrace the idea of doing nothing. My therapist called it “nesting.” Give yourself all day to nest with your little baby bird! And listen to your Doula.
  2. Make sure you have fluids (including but not limited to water) to fuel you and keep you hydrated during labor. I was running out of steam toward the end and my hubby remembered we had apple cider in the waiting room. He fed it to me and I think this helped with the last pushes.
  3. Buy baby clothes at least one or two sizes too big—especially if you plan to use cloth diapers. Babies grow exponentially and those cute newborn outfits may not see the light of day. Ramona is 9 months now and some 18-24 month sized baby clothes fit her like a glove. Most baby clothes run small, and do not account for the added bulk of cloth-diapers. I’m also big on hand-me-downs, both taken and given. I love the idea of passing on a cherished item. Ramona’s winter coat has been in circulation among family and friends (including me) since the 60s and we love it all the more for that reason.

Find out where you can pick up a tub of Anita’s on their website, or follow along on Facebook and Instagram for cooking ideas and food inspirations!