Start DC Travels to New York City and Discovers Savory Yogurt.
On a recent trip to New York City, a new storefront in Morningside Heights caught my eye. A sign on the door promised savory yogurt and Arabic coffee. Inside the store, a cooler of yogurt, fruits, and herbs gleamed, and Angela Fout, founder, greeted me with samples of yogurt and coffee.
Both are amazing, which—admittedly—is never something I thought I’d be saying enthusiastically about yogurt. Fout and her husband and co-founder, John, source milk from farmers in upstate New York and have a 36-hour production process, including straining the yogurt through cheesecloth to remove most of the lactose and sugar. The end result is a thick, rich yogurt with a high protein and low sugar content.
I’m not the only fan of Sohha. Fout opened the Morningside Heights store after three years in business, including Sohha’s stand in Chelsea Market from 2013-2015. Here, the yogurt garnered a lot of attention and accolades, including New York Magazine’s “Best Yogurt” 2014 designation. Fout kindly shared more about Sohha’s start and journey from Midtown to uptown Manhattan, and what she’s learned along the way.
You’ve been in the yogurt business for three years now. What did you do before starting Sohha?
I was a professor. I used to teach English as a second language and also I taught business classes—business writing and spoken business.
What made you want to switch and start making yogurt?
The main reason was my daughter, Savana. My daughter is 5½ years old now, and at around 6 months is when you start giving solid food to babies. Yogurt is one of the best things you can give because it’s high protein, low sugar if made the right way.
Being a first-time mom, I thought you had to buy everything that says “baby” or “organic”. When you look at the shelves at the supermarket—even now— you see that everything for children has sugars, gelatin, [and] chemicals. I wanted a product that was free of all of that and so that’s what made me start. I am Lebanese and it’s my family’s recipe with only three ingredients and no preservatives: milk, culture, and sea salt. I always had this yogurt at home as a staple.
We realized there is a need for families to have good yogurt, and at first our target market was babies. For example, babies need good Omega-3’s for brain development, which comes from good local milk. We spent about a year reading about milk, learning about milk, and visiting local farms before starting Sohha.
I think it’s good product for everyone, not just children!
Definitely. Your body needs high protein to stabilize your blood sugar. You want high protein, not the sugar, which will give you a quick high but then make you crash.
It sounds like you learned a lot since starting your own business. Can you share a few of the main lessons learned?
One lesson learned is managing people. My background as a professor helps with this because as a professor, I managed my class. However, even with this experience dealing with different people—different ages, different cultural influences—what I’ve learned the most [since starting Sohha] is how to manage employees. I want to have good relationships while still being the authority.
I’ve learned how to be a better manager and to see the red flags sooner and not wait until it’s too late. Being a small business, there is no corporate level and there is no red tape, which makes it nice because it’s very personal and a comfortable environment, but also you have to pay attention to the dynamics. If it’s not working out between you and an employee, it’s just not going to work out. I see the signs earlier now.
“When you’re starting a small business, you’re doing everything. You’re the marketing, you’re the sales, you’re the owner, you’re the mom…you’re the wife—all of that.”
I also learned that when you’re starting a small business, you’re doing everything. You’re the marketing, you’re the sales, you’re the owner, you’re the mom—I have to also pay attention to my daughter and her school…you’re the wife—all of that. You’re managing everything and you’re just trying to take a breath.
We were really pleasantly surprised because people welcomed this yogurt, and the impact that Sohha has on people’s lives is rewarding. If you go back three years, no one really focused on savory yogurt and, technically, we were the pioneers because we were in Chelsea Market and got a lot of attention.
Like you said, Chelsea Market seems like a great place to be and you can get a lot of attention from being there. How did you first get into Chelsea Market—do you have tips for other businesses?
To be honest, once you have a good product, it’s very easy for people to want to work with you. Most of our business has come from people contacting us. Of course, we’ve contacted some people, but in general—because our product is so good—people try it and then they write us because they want it.
Before we started selling (in June 2013), we had already won awards for our yogurt. My husband, John, was a student getting his MBA in entrepreneurship and everything was based around the business. He entered a lot of competitions and we won an award for slow food in May 2013, before we started.
That spring, I wrote Chelsea Market and explained that we were a yogurt business that hadn’t started yet, but this was our story and so on. I didn’t hear anything until the summer. I met with them and they loved the product, but didn’t have a spot open. So okay, fine. At the time, we were busy learning how to do farmer’s markets.
“Once you have a good product, it’s very easy for people to want to work with you.”
In September, I started my semester as a teacher. (I stayed teaching while we started selling, which is the best way. You have to move slowly. But it was getting to be too much—teaching, selling, raising my daughter.) A few weeks into the semester, I got an email from Chelsea Market that they had a spot available in 10 days!
I realized I couldn’t teach and take the Chelsea Market spot; it was going to be full-time. Luckily, my director at the time was a wonderful woman. She gave me her blessing and I went for it!
That’s such an amazing story! Switching gears—and my last question: what’s your favorite thing on the menu?
My favorite is the Za’atar Bliss. I grew up with za’atar [a Middle Eastern spice blend made of thyme, toasted sesame seeds, and salt], so I love yogurt with za’atar, tomato, olive, and sometimes mint. Sohha has sweet options too, but I’m really into the savory.
Sohha Yogurt is officially open for business at 1270 Amsterdam Ave in Manhattan. The yogurt is also available online.