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Naturi startup of Pittsburgh created out of desire for better yogurt

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Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Naturi Greek yogurt collaborators Aditya Dhere, Jennifer Mrzlack and Anes Dracic offer distinct takes.

Aditya Dhere and Anes Dracic got their idea for a yogurt company when they couldn’t find what they wanted on supermarket shelves.

The recent MBA graduates of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business ate a lot of yogurt and enjoyed making up recipes with fruit and nuts, but they wanted an organic, high-protein option.

“By being both active and engaged in physical activities … (we) thought, ‘Hey, why not give food a try and change the landscape a bit?’ ” Dracic said. “So we came up with our own brand.”

Naturi, based in the Strip District, was incorporated in February. The pair envision their yogurt as an artisanal alternative to Stonyfield, Chobani, Fage and Yoplait Greek yogurts filling grocery shelves. It tastes better, they said, because it is made with milk from grass-fed cows.

The company is looking to carve a niche in a food category that is growing as consumers focus on eating healthy. Domestic yogurt sales will approach $9.3 billion by 2017, up from $7.3 billion in 2012, according to The NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y., which tracks food industry trends.

Dracic and Dhere have yogurt in their backgrounds. Their mothers made yogurt when both were young, Dracic’s mother in Bosnia and Dhere’s mother with recipes from her native India. The two bought a 1965 yogurt incubator and experimented with their own recipes in early 2014 while enrolled at CMU.

Several failed attempts resulted in variations of cottage cheese. But soon they achieved success and invited friends to taste their yogurt blends.

“Somewhere along the way, people started asking, ‘Hey, can I invest in this?’ ” Dhere said.

Dracic and Dhere signed up a fellow Tepper grad, Jennifer Mrzlack, last summer to handle marketing. She began to shop Naturi to retailers, locking up commitments from some to carry it in their stores.

Naturi’s yogurt is distinct because of its low sugar content and small batches, the founders said. They aim for a different kind of consumer than those who might buy Yoplait or Chobani, saying they want customers who appreciate a locally based company and don’t mind paying more.

Yogurt is Naturi’s first product, but the company considers itself an organic foods company and plans to introduce others, possibly a full-fat Greek yogurt, as its organic Greek yogurt line matures. They aren’t sure when the other products will be developed.

The company’s artisanal, organic Greek yogurt is made on a farm in upstate New York where the cows live and produce the milk. Naturi makes four flavors using uncommon blends or exotic ingredients, such as vanilla with cinnamon, coffee with chicory, and seedless raspberry.

Their flavored yogurts have 14 grams of sugar and 16 grams of protein per 6 ounce serving. By comparison, Stonyfield, a leading yogurt maker, has 19 grams of sugar and 12 grams of protein in a 5.3 ounce serving.

“The low sugar is fairly differentiating, compared to what’s on the market today,” Mrzlack said. “We’re on the low end of the spectrum.”

Other brands such as Chobani and Fage Greek yogurts offer varieties with lower sugar but are not organic regionally sourced.

Naturi is sold in more than 60 locations throughout Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, including dozens of coffee shops and Marty’s Market in the Strip District, according to the company. It’s scheduled to make its debut in Giant Eagle Market District stores in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus by the end of the week.

Naturi’s price point is markedly higher than other Greek or organic yogurts, about two or three times the price of 5.3-ounce nonorganic or non-Greek varieties, though it sells in a slightly bigger container. A 6-ounce container of Naturi sells for $3 at coffee shops and about $2.90 in retail stores. Yogurt prices vary depending on the store, but Stonyfield sells for about $1 and Fage is about $1.80 a cup in Marty’s Market.

The company declined to provide revenue information. They said their initial production runs — a total of 30,000 cups in January and February — sold out. They expect demand and production to increase with wider distribution. Naturi had requests for yogurt and recipe suggestions from people across the country. The makers keep a running list of ideas.

“If you look at the ice cream industry or the beer industry, they’ve both gone (for) more craft or unique flavors,” Mrzlack said. “We’re providing some unique options that weren’t out there.”

The founders raised $50,000 to start the company and Carnegie Mellon matched it. They said they raised another $16,000 through Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform.

Naturi got a boost from local companies and coffee shops who took a chance to put a startup company’s product on shelves, said Ned Renzi, an investor in Naturi and a founding partner of Birchmere Ventures, an investment firm in the Strip District.

“To have such a strong base in our home market really helped springload us into other markets,” Renzi said. “That’s been key … the Pittsburgh community has been phenomenal.”

Katelyn Ferral is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5627 or [email protected].

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