Mike’s Famous Yogurt Cheese Funnel
In 1981, while I was convinced that video games were going to be the next big thing (and starting to write a book to that effect), my mom’s small publishing company was releasing a book on the then-unheard of issue of osteoporosis. The book STAND TALL: An Informed Woman’s Guide to Preventing Osteoporosis, came out that year and was instrumental in popularizing the topic for the public. It reprinted frequently, maybe the hottest title she had ever produced. Stand Tall had lots of information about the disease, ways to manage bone health, and included a section of foods that would be helpful, in particular a diet that increased calcium. She put osteoporosis into the public eye.
In the months after Stand Tall’s release, my mom’s publishing company began getting (old school) letters from women who were enjoying the information, but were stopped by one food item that was mentioned in passing: yogurt cheese. What was yogurt cheese?
Yogurt cheese is yogurt where the whey has been filtered out. It’s a key ingredient in a number of Mediterranean dishes, like tzatziki and labneh, and it’s traditionally made by taking yogurt and putting it in a few layers of cheese cloth and letting the whey drip out for awhile. It’s a slow messy operation, but well worth it: yogurt cheese is cool, and if you start with non-fat yogurt, you would end up with non-fat yogurt cheese — high in calcium, obviously low in fat, and extremely yummy. But readers were having trouble finding or making the product.
So my mom got together with her friend Lenore to address this. Lenore’s husband Dick was an inventor. I remember staying at their home a few times in middle school and playing with his set of interestingly modified golf clubs he had sitting around, as he experimented with weights, balances, and materials. Now he was enrolled in executing a new invention with their kitchen specifications. They wanted to design some sort of product that would make it easy for people to make their own yogurt cheese. It would need to be a funnel shape, include filtering material, and my mom insisted it come apart so it could store flat and be dishwasher safe.
What they produced was a funnel: it was made of washable plastic, it sat flat, but snapped together into a cone, and was lined with a medical-grade industrial mesh that would filter out whey. You just fold up the funnel, set it in a glass, pour in yogurt, and watch the whey drip out. It would take about a day to get the liquid out — the longer you drained it the more solid the resulting cheese, which you could vary by recipe. Voila!
They constructed a mechanical device that was key in the manufacture and assembly of the funnels, and began producing them and making them available to Stand Tall readers. After a deal with the Home Shopping Network, a new cable TV avenue to reach the population, the “Really Creamy” yogurt funnels (sold in pairs in a little bag), flew off the shelves. By the time I was out of college she was selling hundreds of thousands of these things and new competitors were taking notice. She was making deals with yogurt companies. There were brief yogurt-cheese wars.
In time sales were slowing down and she had moved on to other books and other concerns. Finally she came to a decision point — either buy the rights from her partners and step up efforts again, or just let rights expire and move on. She was ready to move on, but I was not. Personal computers were getting more powerful in terms of graphics and publishing capabilities, and the Internet was starting to ramp up, and I couldn’t stand to see her walk away from the cool simple product when it seemed like new opportunities might be around the corner. My advice was for her to stick it out.
She suggested that she’d double down, but only if I got involved in the marketing and design. My skills were rudimentary, but that was the joy in desktop publishing in 1990s. So we started a little project together. Lenore and a friend aggregated all the best yogurt cheese recipes into a small book—and I designed some packaging and materials, and we produced a new boxed set of products — the book plus two funnels — and made it a little sillier. I was aiming for folksy kitchen fun. Whimsey. Homemade. I wanted my mom’s name on it. “Mom’s Yogurt Cheese Funnel” but she resisted. We settled: it became Uncle Mike’s Famous Yogurt Cheese Maker, although in the end we dropped the “Uncle.”
We declared it was “gravity powered.” It even came with stickers that said “It’s a yogurt cheese world.” And just like that, the world got some more yogurt cheese. It again took off for a time.
A decade later we faced intense competition from the manufacturers of various kitchen counter devices with well-funded marketing campaigns and corporate deals. She and I were each distracted with other projects, and then the death-blow: the unique machine that produced the product finally broke, and the effort to fix it exceeded our ambitions, and thus ended the reign of the yogurt cheese funnel.
In the last few years, consumers have piled onto “greek yogurt” craze from a range of brands — the popular name for this kind of strained product. In 2012 it was a $4 billion industry. So what we really found was a local maximum, but the truth is we totally missed pioneering a massive disruption in the yogurt cheese world.
While our simple product is no longer available, I still have mine, and use it periodically (apparently they really do last a lifetime!). It’s increasingly possible to buy pre-made yogurt cheese in specialty grocers, and greek yogurt in myriad flavors, so the demand to make it yourself is lessened. But let me tell you, there’s nothing better than a low calorie cheesecake made with low-fat vanilla yogurt, filtered into low-fat vanilla yogurt cheese, with some pineapple chunks added. The crust isn’t really healthy, but I’ve never felt better chowing down a cheesecake before.