“I realized I had a product I loved, my day job was not for me, I had an investor, and I had a customer…,” he trails off. “I thought, if I don’t jump on this quickly, I’m silly.”
But Siggi Hilmarsson wasn’t silly.
He jumped on it.
And Siggi’s Icelandic Skyr was born.
Now let's back up.
WHAT IS SKYR?
Hilmarsson, born and raised in Reykjavic, explains that skyr is a form of strained (and therefore high-protein) yogurt. “It was originally made on Icelandic farms as a byproduct of buttermaking,” he says. “You need to do something with the skimmed milk after you make butter. Skyr was that byproduct for us.”
But during the 1960s and 1970s, Hilmarsson says, skyr was beginning to gain a reputation in Iceland as being a bit old-school, a relic of the past. Then, in the 1980s, it had a resurgence. “When I was growing up,” he says, “it started to become very popular again.”
Just because the cultured dairy product is naturally free of fat doesn’t mean Icelanders always eat it that way. Creamskyr, Hilmarsson says, is “the practice of taking a glob of skyr, taking a little bit of brown sugar, and pouring over some cream.” Often, bitter arctic berries called crowberries are added to the mix as well. Creamskyr is often eaten for dessert, and, in fact, is a favorite of Hilmarsson’s father, Hilmar, who still lives in Reykjavic today.
The company’s newest product line of whole milk skyr boasts 4 percent milkfat. It’s an homage to Hilmar and the luxurious way he’s always enjoyed his skyr.
HOW THE SIGGI’S BRAND WAS BORN
Nearly 13 years ago, Siggi Hilmarsson moved to the United States to attend Columbia Business School. After earning his MBA in 2004, he took a job at Deloitte, the prestigious consulting firm.
The fit, though, wasn’t great.
“I really disliked my day job,” Hilmarsson admits.
And that’s not all that disappointed the newly crowned MBA. The highly processed American food he’d encountered had him longing for the traditional foods he’d grown up on.
“I grew up eating Icelandic flatbread with butterfish and potatoes for dinner. It was very simple food.” Before long, he began craving the skyr he’d eaten throughout his first 25 years in Iceland.
“So I started making skyr in my apartment,” he says of that year in 2004, when he was living in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. “It started as an intense hobby, but I became more and more serious about it.”
The next year, in 2005, Hilmarsson rented out the dairy plant at Morrisville State College in Morrisville, New York. “I rented it for three days and made kick-ass yogurt,” he laughs. “Normally, when I made it at home I’d make five to ten cups. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes it wasn’t. But there I made 300 cups of yogurt, and it all tasted great.”
When he returned to New York City, he gave some to a friend who worked at Murray’s Cheese, a well-established, specialty cheese shop founded in 1940. She took the skyr to the shop’s buying committee.
Hilmarsson soon got an email from Murray’s. It read: "If you start making this, we’ll stock it in the store.”
Then he offered some skyr to one of his former business school professors. “He tried it and said, ‘If you start your own business, I’ll be your first investor.'”
So Siggi Hilmarsson had his first customer and his first investor.
He just didn’t yet have a business.
“It took me a while to get everything up and running and buy the equipment,” Hilmarsson says. By the summer of 2006, he and a small team were making 200 to 300 cups of skyr a week at a plant in upstate New York. He sold his skyr to Murray’s Cheese and at the Real Food Market, gradually scaling up his output and production.
Hilmarsson figured his business would remain a small New York venture.
By 2007, Siggi’s Icelandic Skyr was available in 15 stores, including Manhattan food meccas Zabar’s and Dean & DeLuca.
“Then Whole Foods approached me, and I was like, Wow, this might be something more than a cool, New York hip thing to do.”
HOW TO SECURE MARKET SHARE IN A CROWDED FIELD
I ask Hilmarsson what sets his skyr apart from the other strained yogurts on the market, nearly all of which wear the Greek label. For one thing, he says, his skyr has less sugar.
“We were so different because we’re so low in sugar. I was used to candy because there’s a lot of candy in Iceland, but it’s always in the form of… candy. There’s not as much sugar in regular food. I was shocked when I came here and things like whole wheat bread and condiments had so much sugar. Yogurt, in particular. You had yogurt here that had more sugar than a can of Coke per ounce.”
“My philosophy is to create a product that adheres to this criteria: It has a little fruit and a little sugar, but it’s not overwhelming.”
Ultimately, he adds, “We make yogurt for people who actually like yogurt. We’re not making yogurt for people who want to eat something else.”
Words © Cheryl Sternman Rule
Photographs Courtesy of Siggi's Dairy
Want to catch up on our earlier Maker Profiles? Read our stories behind Noosa Finest Yoghurt, AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery, Sohha Savory Yogurt, Eb & Bean's Frozen Yogurt, and White Moustache Yogurt. This is an ongoing series.