Video: Ibex and the Drinkable Yogurt Category

Drinkable yogurt sits at the intersection of the three P’s of beverage industry buzzwords — probiotic, portable, protein. Yet will this advantageous positioning be enough to carry a category?

While yogurt has long been a staple of American diets, the drinkable kind is gradually emerging with a few mainstream staples — Lifeway and Stonyfield — along with a cluster of early-stage brands. Brandon Partridge, the founder and CEO of Skyland Foods, the company that markets one of those early-stage brands, Ibex Drinkable Yogurt, was drawn to the category in part because of its underdeveloped state. He looks to standard and Greek yogurt as proof there will be demand.

“The broader yogurt category has been a booming category for a number of years,” he said.

ibex 150In the video above, Partridge discusses Ibex’s maturation following the expected roadblocks of a food-and-beverage startup. At Expo East two years ago, Skyland Foods introduced Ibex in its former state — four distinct drinkable yogurts with four unique functions. Partridge thought that the portfolio diversity would serve as a point of differentiation for the brand. Instead, it became an expensive jumble.

“Consumers kind of seemed to find that confusing,” he said. “If they liked the ginger flavor, they wanted the ginger flavor. They weren’t really that concerned with what benefit it conveyed.”

In response, Partridge simplified things. Ibex announced in June that it had reformulated the line, which is now certified organic, and added two new flavors, Coconut and Raspberry, all of which contain probiotics and prebiotics. Before the switch, Partridge couldn’t afford organic ingredients because of the costs of making four different yogurts. After the switch, which has eased the manufacturing process, Ibex gained the certification and retailers have responded quite favorably, he said.

With help from newly-hired broker Tozzi and Associates, Ibex hopes to expand its footprint beyond the company’s home in Washington D.C. and nearby Baltimore. Tozzi and Skyland have already begun pitching three different regions of Whole Foods, as well as other chains and natural and specialty stores on the East Coast.

Partridge said that he would welcome more competition to help establish the category. More competition could spread consumer awareness and designate more drinkable yogurt sections at those valuable cold shelves.

Lifeway Kefir, founded in 1986, serves as the category’s tenured archetype while it continues to pump out innovation. At Expo East, Lifeway Foods displayed three products that were released in the spring — Lifeway Veggie Kefir, Lifeway Kefir with Oats and Lifeway Perfect 12 Kefir sweetened with stevia. Derek Miller, VP of communications at Lifeway, said that Fairway and Ingles Markets recently took on all three of the new products, and Hy-Vee took the stevia-sweetened SKU. Meanwhile, Lifeway’s underdeveloped markets are being introduced to the flagship.

maple hill blueA trio of smaller brands showcased drinkable yogurts at Expo East — Maple Hill Creamery, B’More Organic and Trickling Springs Creamery.

This past March, Maple Hill Creamery launched 12 oz. bottles of drinkable yogurt in six flavors — Plain, Vanilla, Maple, Lemon, Wild Blueberry and Orange Créme. The brand is distributed through United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) and is pondering a vegetable-based beverage.

B’More Organic, which markets a drinkable Icelandic-style skyr, used the Expo as a stage for its new Strawberry Banana flavor. It took this long to launch the classic flavor combination, said co-founder Andrew Buerger, because of the cost of small-batch strawberries. But he’s enthused to sell a yogurt that offers protein in a ready-to-drink, smoothie-like format. The brand hired Wildfire Sales as its broker and has already landed distribution at Whole Foods mid-Atlantic and, by the end of the year, Safeway mid-Atlantic.

Trickling Springs, based in Chambersburg, Pa., launched its own dairy drink in July at the Fancy Foods Show in New York. At Expo East, the company showed off new labels and packaging, sampled a Blueberry Tart flavor and talked about its recent recognition. Over the summer, the brand’s Unsweetened Plain Yogurt Smoothie won first place in the drinkable yogurt/buttermilk/kefir category at a competition held by the American Cheese Society. Marketing manager Joe Miller believes that Trickling Springs and products like it will eventually gain recognition from more than cheeseheads.

“The category has been there,” Miller said. “The viability is definitely there.”