Posted on 10 Feb 2014 18:57
Colombo yogurt was the first U.S. yogurt brand. It got its start in 1929 when Armenian immigrants Rose and Sarkis Colombosian began jarring and selling their family yogurt in Andover, Massachusetts. The yogurt they made in America was the same they had made in the old-country, and based on a traditional Armenian recipe. Along with their sons, the couple hand-filled every jar, and sold it to neighbors and friends.
The Colombosians, who had arrived in Chicago in 1917 but then moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, bought a small dairy farm in nearby Andover they called Wild Rose Dairy. The family made yogurt and a drink called ayran from their milk. When they began producing more milk than they could sell or use themselves, they decided to make yogurt that they would also sell along their milk route.
There were no delusions of grandeur here. This was the great depression and the family was simply trying to make ends meet. As Bob Colombosian, one of the sons, recalled, "You made $10 ad week and you were doing great." The family traveled their sales route in horse-drawn wagons with their jars of yogurt labelled "Colombo" because, as Bob claimed, "nobody could pronounce our name."
In fact, the Colombosian's first customers were the local Syrian, Lebanese, Greek, or Armenian immigrants, all of which came from cultures with a yogurt tradition. It proved a good business, as these local hard-working folks were busy working in mills or other occupations and had no time to make their own yogurt the old way. The Colombosians priced their yogurt low enough so that it was as economical to buy as to make at home.
From local dairy routes, the family began targeting Middle Eastern grocery shops. American owned grocery stores were not a likely sale, since yogurt was still an unknown food to most Americans. They managed to get their yogurt into two stores in Watertown owned by the Mulgars. The Mulgars would later open a Massachusetts supermarket chain called Star Markets, which would also carry Colombo.
After a fire damaged their farm in 1939, they built a large facility in Andover. The popularity of their yogurt spread, and by 1940 they were selling it throughout New England. Even so, it took many years for yogurt to really take off in the US. Yogurt, which comes from a Turkish word meaning "to thicken," was a mysterious food only known by middle easterners, and most European immigrants had their own familiar soured creams, so they viewed this new food with suspicion. Thanks to an October 1960 article in Reader's Digest, however, which lauded yogurt for its protein content and claimed it was a great way to look younger and live longer, health-food stores got into the yogurt business, selling yogurt soaps, creams, tablets, and cultures for homemade yogurt. This is the way some people found Colombo yogurt early on, and from the health-food stores Colombo was able to enter the supermarket.
By the time yogurt was becoming widely accepted and integrated into the culture, other yogurts, like Dannon, had joined the race. Regardless, until the mid-60's, Colombo yogurt was the only game in town and had spread beyond it's glass jar and New England roots by 1960, when it was commonly sold at grocery stores in blue and white paper cups. Only plain Colombo yogurt existed at that time, however, and the sour taste turned most consumers off. Bob and his brother John, having taken over the company in 1966, began sweetening the yogurt and putting various kinds of fruit in the bottom. They introduced a new line of flavors in 1971. Sales skyrocketed and the company expanded, at long last, into a modern facility. They hit a million dollars in sales the first year after moving to the new plant.1,2
However, the company did not have the capital to compete in the mass market, so they looked for investors, and sold the business to Bon Grain, a French conglomerate, in 1977. In 1993, the company was sold to General Mills.
In 2010, General Mills stopped producing Colombo yogurt, in order to concentrate on its other yogurt brand, Yoplait. Bob Colombosian, then 84, was saddened by the decision, saying that it was the worst thing the company could do, to drop the brand, the oldest in the United States. "It is a big part of my life," he said. "It is all of it, really."3