By VIC DOLCOURT
When I think of yogurt, I think of dairy. But Bonnie Lau of San Francisco thinks differently. She has developed a coconut-based yogurt with the benefits of dairy yogurt and then some. As a marathon runner, Bonnie was looking for a tasty dairy-free snack to fuel her run and provide energy post workout. But none of the products on the market met her needs – they either had dairy or lots of sugar. “My runner friends were gobbling Greek yogurt,” said Bonnie. “Runners need electrolytes for hydration and food that supports the runner through race and recovery. So I wondered if I could make a better yogurt from plant-based ingredients. That led to many trials and errors – more than 300, and leaving a career as a CPA in international taxation at a Big Four accounting firm. So far it has been an exciting trip.”
Developing the product and packaging
Bonnie said that the first attempt was more like cupcake frosting – good tasting, but it was not yet yogurt. The second iteration got closer – plant-based pudding. Then she enlisted the aid of two food scientists, and together in a little less than two years they developed what is now Yoconut. She particularly thanks the patience and good nature of friends who ate the many yogurt samples the team created.
“Creating a tasty plant-based yogurt was difficult, but that paled in comparison to what I needed to do to market and sell Yoconut,” Bonnie said. “Packaging alone took forever – almost a year.” She noted that it wasn’t until the patent was filed that she could do focus group tasting. Then she tested packaging that best featured and protected the product from perils like moisture and UV light.
This was all new to me. So I went to a nearby market and bought Yoconut in the dairy case, where it was the only non-dairy yogurt. Reading from the label is a health-conscious foodie’s dream: “comes from whole natural coconuts,” “hydrating,” “dairy, gluten, and soy free,” “non-GMO ingredients,” “no added sugar,” “excellent source of calcium,” “live cultures,” “high fiber,” and “plant-based.” The FDA regulates food labels closely and each word on the yogurt cup had to be audited by an independent food-testing laboratory.
Marketing persistence pays off
Once Yoconut was fully developed, Bonnie said, she was excited to get her coconut yogurt into people’s mouths. Her sales strategy was to build a following at a local farmers market and then show retailers the demand. “I was knocking on supermarket doors with not a lot of luck. Then in January 2017 a rainstorm struck. It was so terrible that the Fort Mason Farmers’ Market couldn’t open. “My car was full of yogurt that took up to three days to make,” Bonnie said. “It’s a live product with a short shelf life, and if it didn’t get sold, it would all be wasted. I was desperate. I called up all of the retailers I had visited earlier and told them they would have to take my yogurt. Amazingly, I was able to place all of my yogurt at some of the markets. My lemons suddenly changed to lemonade.”
After that, Bonnie (pictured at right) was able to offer her customers other ways to buy Yoconut. While she was at the farmers market she would direct customers to retail locations where they could buy the yogurt. “I was advertising their supermarkets for free, and I guess supermarket buyers like that,” Bonnie said. Her current strategy is to maintain three tasty flavors that people love. First is original, which tastes of fresh, smooth coconut, slightly sweet and not too tart. Then there is Madagascar Vanilla bean. The third is a fruit flavor that rotates seasonally. It creates interest and has a flavor profile reminiscent of the season. The third flavor is currently pineapple, and one of the past flavors was lemon cream.
Where to find it
Bonnie’s company is still young, but has grown considerably since sales began at the farmers’ market. Yoconut’s website lists dozens of Bay Area markets and other retail locations where you can buy Yoconut, and describes how to request it at your local market. Yoconut is also available through Farmstead food delivery service. And Yoconut has room to grow in its present South San Francisco yogurt facility. Bonnie’s strategy for the mid-term: get more people to try Yoconut and get it on more supermarkets’ shelves. We wish Bonnie the best of luck.