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Startup converting CT yogurt facility to plant-based alternative

September 4, 2019

A Bridgewater native has purchased the former YoCrunch facility in Naugatuck, with plans to produce plant-based alternatives for yogurt and other dairy products for mass retailers like supermarkets.

Under founder Tom Moffitt, Culture Fresh Foods has raised $11 million in venture financing from investors in Maine and Vermont, with the company purchasing the YoCrunch plant that was shut down earlier this year by industry giant Danone more than five years after acquiring YoCrunch

Moffitt is an experienced entrepreneur, starting up Commonwealth Dairy in Brattleboro, Vt. as a manufacturer of yogurt and other products sold under the labels of its supermarket customers, before building up its own Green Mountain Creamery brand and reaching $140 million in annual sales. Earlier in his career, he kickstarted a similar effort at the Quincy, Mass. headquarters of Stop & Shop, and before that worked for Daymon Worldwide, a Stamford-based company that helps companies build private-label brands.

Moffitt started Culture Fresh Foods in Vermont, but is moving the company to Naugatuck after learning about the availability of the former YoCrunch plant, which Danone put on the market after laying off nearly 150 workers last year. Moffitt told Hearst Connecticut Media on Wednesday that the company is laying the rails to bring many of those people on board the new venture.

As growing numbers of consumers opt for plant-based foods — a trend underscored by Beyond Meat whose patties are used for Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, but with almond and soy milks long in the mix for cooler space in supermarkets — Moffitt believes Culture Fresh Foods will be able to carve out a niche producing non-dairy versions of yogurt, creamer, milks and other products. As the case with Commonwealth Dairy, Moffitt plans to build a private-label business before shipping Culture Fresh Foods products under its own brand.

Moffitt said Culture Fresh Foods’ Naugatuck plant will produce only foods made from oats, almonds and other plant-based foods, differentiating from some companies that ship both dairy and alternative products from the same facility. It is a distinction, he believes, both to purists and those who suffer reactions to dairy-based foods.

He added that the attention generated by Beyond Meat’s initial public offering of stock in early May has helped startups like Culture Fresh Foods tap capital, with the company raising funds from FreshTracks Capital in Vermont and CEI Ventures in Maine.

“In a general way it did, because (Beyond Meat) obviously had a ... very successful IPO and a lot of press around the Impossible Burger and Burger King,” Moffitt said. “They really showed ... that those segments really have legs.”

Over the past several years, both startups and established brands like Chobani and Silk have come out with non-dairy yogurts from ingredients ranging from almonds to cashews to plantains and pili nuts sourced from the Philippines. The category saw a nearly 40 percent boost in sales to $230 million, according to estimates by the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association which offers a certification program for vendors.

The YoCrunch factory on Spring Street in Naugatuck was more affordable than a competing option Moffitt scouted in upstate New York, with most of the equipment still installed and a workforce at the ready. He said he is energized by his startup’s freshly adopted home in Naugatuck, and by extension, a return to his own roots having grown up in Bridgewater and his father having run a heating and cooling services company in Danbury.

“I was at my parent’s house last weekend, and I said, ‘I feel like I am home from college,’” Moffitt said. “It was overwhelming to meet these (Danone workers) who were so passionate, and love this job so much.”

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman

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