Growing up in Renton, a coal mining town east of Pittsburgh, Ron Marks was no stranger to the food business. His parents ran a small general store, and a week after his Bar Mitzvah, then 13-year-old Marks started working alongside his father in the store's butcher shop.
“I was a pretty good butcher,” he recalls. “We’d break down the animals, dressing and butchering 40 to 50 deer a season. We did sausages, various ham salads. I decided fairly early on I really liked working with food.”
This enthusiasm served him well when, at age 18, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. As part of an internship, he was assigned to someone significant.
“I had the dumb luck of working an internship with Jacques Pepin at the World Trade Center. I stayed there for three years, opening 42 different food service operations throughout the Center. In terms of the caliber of people and straight-up chefdom, it’s probably the best experience I’ve ever had.” Marks soon went on to work other high-profile jobs, including serving as the executive chef of the Playboy Club in New York City.
In the 1980s, he moved west and transitioned to a new kind of role: helming the kitchens at fast-casual chains such as Applebee’s and TGI Fridays, which were both thriving. His role then pivoted toward the product marketing and R&D (research and development) side of the industry.
When he left Applebee’s, Marks was Senior Vice President of R&D, a role that honed the skills he would continue to draw on throughout in his career.
Soon, Marks moved to Atlanta, founding a culinary consultancy and research center. It did quite well, for a while. But then the economy tanked.
In 2008, he realized that he needed to reinvent himself. Fortunately, his background, training, and experience gave him a well of marketing expertise and business savvy to draw on.
So why Greek yogurt?
Focus on Food, his consultancy, had occupied an 8,000 square foot facility with rooms for focus groups and taste tests. It also had commercial kitchen space. “I always knew it could be a food manufacturing facility,” Ron reflects. He decided it was time to veer into either charcuterie or cultured dairy.
Somewhat surprisingly, this former butcher chose the latter.
Not only was the investment for charcuterie much higher, but there were already two local, established companies in that sector. Precious few companies were making yogurt in the southeastern United States.
(Nationally, however, the Greek yogurt market was already booming. Fage had been around for years, importing its products to the U.S. beginning in 1998, and Chobani was making serious waves. Dannon debuted its own Greek yogurt in 2010.)
For Marks, the shift was a natural one. He’d been making fresh mozzarella and culturing yogurt, sour cream, and crème fraiche for clients for years. Greek yogurt was a logical next step.
He called his new business AtlantaFresh.
Marks drew inspiration from the cultured dairy of France and Germany and less from Greece, whose yogurts he (and his focus group respondents) found too acidic. He also used grass-fed milk from local dairies and refused to thicken his yogurt with the starches or fillers.
At a key moment, Whole Foods Market awarded the company a loan to automate its straining process, which up until that point had been done manually. This money funded the purchase of a yogurt separator from Tel Aviv, a game-changing piece of equipment that a company as small as Atlanta Fresh would have been unable to afford otherwise. With the separator in place and the support of Whole Foods, Marks could secure a federal license to sell his yogurt across state lines. Production jumped, and gross sales increased from $150K to $1.3 million in a single year.
Today, AtlantaFresh sells a probiotic whey-based beverage called Wheymonade, yogurt cream cheese, dips, and heavy cream in addition to its yogurt in flavors that veer toward the creative. With combinations like Port Wine & Black Cherry, Vanilla & Caramel, and seasonal offerings like Strawberry, Basil & Balsamic, the product line draws heavily from Marks’ long-term commitment to experimentation.
“Having sat in on a few thousand focus groups during my career,” he says, “people can tell you what they don’t like. The real challenge for an innovative company is finding something they don’t know they would like. If you can give them bridges of comfort to minimize the risk, then they are much more willing to try it. "
"That’s the key to innovation.”