Gut Instinct

Gut Instinct Photo by | Jason Kaplan

Springfield Creamery takes on Greek yogurt in a probiotic smackdown.


Nancy Hamren, the person behind the eponymous Nancy’s Yogurt, still occasionally comes into the office at the Springfield Creamery in Eugene.

And Chuck Kesey, co-creator of the original yogurt recipe with Hamren back in 1970, still does quality control on batches of the company’s cup-cultured yogurt, using nothing more than a spoon.

But nearly everything else in the world of yogurt has changed over the almost 50 years that Springfield Creamery has produced this classic fermented-dairy food.

Back in 1970, yogurt was a “hippy dippy” product, but these days the yogurt shelf in the grocery’s dairy case is a crowded venue, where Greek, Icelandic and even Australian varieties of the stuff jostle next to sweetened flavors from mainstream suppliers like Dannon.

There are full-fat, low-fat, nonfat and organic yogurts; almond- soy- and coconut-milk yogurts; yogurts with add-ins like granola and fruit — on the bottom, on the top or mixed throughout.

That staggering variety is a conundrum for Springfield because the market is simultnaously expanding and fragmenting.

“It’s very challenging now to get on that dairy shelf; there’s a finite amount of space,” says Sheryl Kesey Thompson, 55, who, with her brother Kit, makes up the second Kesey generation working at family-owned Springfield.

“We are constantly working on how to remain fresh and competitive. There’s a yogurt segment, but that segment is getting diluted, and we need to stand apart from the rest of the crowd.”

IMG 9890Dairy family: Chuck Kesey, Sheryl Kesey Thompson and Sue Kesey

Started 57 years ago by Thompson’s parents, Chuck and wife Sue, with a little help from Chuck’s father, a dairyman, Springfield rode the market wave of natural and health foods.

Nancy’s became an iconic regional brand focused on additive-free, minimally sweetened yogurt, kefir and other dairy items. Significantly, the brand was one of the first to add live probiotic strains such as acidophilus to products.

Today Nancy’s continues to expand, reaching $27 million in sales last year, up from $22 million in 2010. But its trajectory isn’t the same as high-growth Chobani or Siggi’s, international stars that capitalize on the vogue for rich Greek-style yogurt and “ethnic authenticity” branding.

To be sure, for the moment, there seems room for everyone — the North American yogurt market is expected to reach $15 billion in sales by 2024, according to Transparency Market Research.

But while the analyst group ReportLinker acknowledges yogurt as one of the hottest food categories, the group says the jam-packed shelf means pressure to innovate and differentiate is also at an all-time high.

Thompson says Springfield will do that via introduction of new products like a whole-milk kefir line it debuted in July 2017; continuous education of consumers on the benefits of probiotic-fortified foods; and by retelling the brand story that has fueled Nancy’s popularity through the decades.

“Some of the yogurt trends are a flash in the pan; some of them take a bite. We got in a little late.”

After almost 50 years, the origin tale of Nancy’s Yogurt has some almost mythological elements. Sue and Chuck (yes, his brother is that Ken Kesey) were enmeshed in the Eugene counterculture of the late 1960s.

Hamren lived for a time on Ken Kesey’s Eugene farm before becoming Springfield’s accountant and then working with Chuck on the original honey yogurt recipe.

While the Keseys were still struggling to ramp up production, the Grateful Dead famously played a benefit concert for Springfield back in 1972 in Veneta, Oregon.

Chuck was a graduate in dairy science at OSU, which, at the time, was a center of research on probiotics for animal health. And by 1969, both Sue and Chuck were fully aware that their boutique creamery couldn’t compete with industrial milk producers.

“Yogurt was much more interesting to us than fluid milk anyway,” says Sue, 78.

“Chuck wanted to put acidophilus in yogurt because he knew it was a good, beneficial bacteria, and we wanted to be independent, run our own business and fit in with the folks that were the counterculture.”

The business grew naturally (pun intended), and the creamery eventually moved out of Springfield proper to a 10-acre plot near the Eugene airport in 1990. A fire damaged the original building, which the Keseys rebuilt and expanded, before launching Nancy’s organic line of yogurt.

DSCF4794

In 2010 the Greek yogurt boom hit — hard. Suddenly, ethnic dairy products were all the rage, and today Greek is still the fastest growing segment of the yogurt market. Nancy’s didn’t see it coming, Sue admits.

“That’s a segment that has gone much further than you might have thought it would,” she says. “Some of the [yogurt trends] are flash in the pan; some of them take a bite. We got in a little late.”

Sue says the family delayed action until loyal long-term customers began switching to other brands for the Greek stuff. In 2012 the company joined the crowd and launched its own Greek yogurt line.

Both Sue and Thompson say Springfield, with its 55 employees, needs to identify and seize on vertical opportunities, such as distributing its single-service yogurts to health-conscious airport concessions. What they eschew is losing the independence that bigger growth entails.DSCF4830

“You really can’t accelerate growth without equity partners or someone pouring in a lot of money,” Thompson says.

“We don’t want to take on the debt to compete at that level — that’s where you see the [company] mergers and sellouts,” adds Sue.

And so, she says, Springfield’s growth “trudges” happily along.

The company has supported two generations of Keseys and dozens of employees, and is working on a third generation, as two of Thompson’s sons have come into the business.

They’ve also got that probiotic edge.

Today, everything old is new, and as the science around the human microbiome gets more sophisticated, Springfield Creamery plans to continue educating consumers about the benefits of acidopholous while innovating with new and improved strains.

“Fifteen years ago, we didn’t put the word ‘probiotic’ on the Nancy’s label because nobody knew what the word was,” Thompson says. “Now it’s our core message — our products help regain digestive health.”

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