This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”
I need to make a confession. This was an interview I really wanted to do. I spent over 25 years in consumer packaged goods, specifically in dairy, and have always wanted to see quark succeed in the US market. If you don’t know what quark is, Google it. It is creamy and soft. If yogurt and cream cheese had a love child, it would be quark.
I first tried Wünder Creamery’s quark at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. I loved it. Then I met co-founder Kamilya Abilova. Her story was fascinating, and I thought it would be interesting to share a bit about her journey. I hope you enjoy the article.
Why are you guys doing this crazy thing?
“I’m from Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, a place that knows and loves quark. Almost every household fridge back home has some quark in it. We know about quark by way of Russian cuisine, but in more than 20 countries, all over Europe, it’s a beloved staple. I personally loved it for its mild taste and thick texture. It was always a great snack. But we would also make cheesecake with it back home, we’d spread it on bread, we could do it all. I don’t believe we used it as a dip as much, but quark is great for that, too.
“Quark is essentially a cheese, and we use cheese cultures to make it. Think something between yogurt and crème fresh.”
“When I came to the US, I discovered that yogurt and dairy products were far different from what I knew back home. Yogurts seemed too sour or too sweet, they also seemed to be a bit too runny. I like my cultured dairy snack thick and filling. I found some quark here, but it was sold in the cheese section in big containers without any callouts on the packaging about its benefits, and it just tasted different. There was just no authentic quark on the market as a grab-n-go item, and an explanation about what quark is was nowhere to be seen. So, unless you are curious enough to Google it or you are somewhere from Europe and know how to use it in recipes, quark was just an obscure name on the shelf you pass by occasionally.”
“It was definitely blissful ignorance at the beginning that brought us into the cultured dairy business. Pure quark passion. There was not too much understanding of what the perishable cultured dairy category represents as a whole and the challenges that come with it. It has taken a lot of research on the production of quark and a lot of effort to create the right recipe. We came up with our recipe from scratch while consulting with different creamery owners and looking for the right blend of cultures. Our cultures come from France now. We were driven by the idea of bringing quark to the US market. For us, it just didn’t make sense that it was not commercially being made already.”
Why did you change the brand name?
“We changed the name from Misha to Wünder. It was a hard decision to make. Misha is a term of endearment in Eastern Europe, so it had a sentimental touch for us in some way, but we were already introducing a foreign product and we thought that introducing a foreign brand name as well would be overwhelming to our consumers. Occasionally someone would come over to us and ask: ‘Is quark a brand name and Misha the product name or is it the other way around?’ Making sure that at least the brand name really evokes and explains the product to the consumer was important. Wünder is not only a not to quark’s European heritage, but it also speaks to its positioning as a nutrition-rich snack really well.”
What’s your biggest challenge?
“The biggest challenge we have faced, and something that we truly underestimated when we were starting out, is the educational aspect of it. Quark is easy to love, but not easy to describe. We make this authentic product for which the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. However, quark is a fairly foreign name in the dairy aisle, and people are hesitant to try it initially. We needed to ground quark in the familiar, so we decided to lead with quark’s descriptor ‘nutrition-rich super dairy.’ Because essentially, this is what quark is.
What are you worried about right now?
“Cultures are capricious, and it is definitely kind of an art of its own to work with cultured dairy products. Consistency from batch to batch worries us because we are a small-batch company at this point. It was definitely something that was difficult — in the beginning, especially. Now we have the infrastructure in place that allows us to have consistent products on the shelf, and it’s nice. Yet, it is always at the back of the mind.”
If you could go back to when you first had this idea and give yourself some advice, what would that advice be?
“I would tell myself to delegate earlier. Start delegating and expanding the team earlier than you’ve originally planned, if possible, be it with full-time teammates or interns. Three of us were working alone for such a long time: my partner, Pierre, my co-founder, Daniyar, and myself. You originally feel like ‘OK, we can do this,’ until you realize at some point that you really need more people engaged to make things work. It can be paralyzing. I heard about this mistake a lot before we started out, and yet it didn’t set in until we made this mistake. We expanded our team recently. Having a few more people working with us now is such an amazing experience.”
What have you learned about being a leader?
“It was interesting to realize that, at the end of the day, you have to understand that everyone simply wants to contribute in a meaningful way. And to make things work and maintain a good energy in the company at the same time you need to arrange that. I guess it might be one of the differences between small companies and bigger corporations. In small companies, the dynamic is amazing because everyone feels like they’re contributing and in a meaningful way.
“When we expanded our team, for instance, I felt that just making sure that everyone in the team feels that way, becomes a big part of the job. And then you just hope that you are doing an all right job in this department. We expanded our team fairly recently, so we are yet to see about that.”
Would you do it again?
“Oh, I love it. We definitely had our share of setbacks. Not only because of the nature of cultured dairy business, but we also decided to create a category within the yogurt category. It has been fairly challenging, but creating a new category is always an interesting marketing challenge. The feedback to our quark is truly overwhelmingly positive, and this is what drives us. Also, teamwork is a surprisingly beautiful and gratifying experience in itself, especially when you are creating something new.”
Like the Lead Human interviews? Leave us your email and we’ll send you audio excerpts, pictures, and all kinds of cool stuff. Get your bonus materials here.
Elliot Begoun is the founder of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow and become investment ready. He works with clients to design and execute customized route-to-market and go-to-market strategies that build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. Catch him at FoodBytes in his role as a mentor and find his articles in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and FoodDive.
If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails for the dairy industry and entrepreneurs, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.