AtlantaFresh yogurt brought me back to breakfast. I’ve never been much of a morning eater, but now I wake up craving a cup of the company’s thick, silky, Greek-style yogurt—usually the zingy peach-ginger flavor. One day last summer, Tim Gaddis, the cheese monger at Star Provisions, introduced me to the yogurt. He was the company’s first customer. Soon, I saw AtlantaFresh yogurts and cheeses start popping up at markets all over the metro area—at Alon’s, Sawicki’s, Sevananda, Return To Eden, and Whole Foods. Where did this company come from? I took a trip to Norcross to find out.
Ron Marks, owner of AtlantaFresh, took an unlikely path toward his new role as local yogurt sensation. Marks grew up in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, where his parents ran a general food store. By the time he reached 15, he was an accomplished butcher, and he knew he would spend his life working in the food industry. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in the ’70s, and landed an internship—and then a job—working under Jacques Pepin the kitchens of New York’s World Trade Center. He worked at the Playboy Club in Manhattan before moving to the West Coast, where he eventually fell into Research & Development (R&D) for large chains such as TGI Friday’s and Applebee’s, the later of which he worked for from 1986 to 1998. “It didn’t broaden my culinary horizons, per se,” says Marks about that time. But it did teach him the mechanizations of corporate food development.
In 1998, Marks became an independent contractor and founded a company in Norcross called “Focus on Food,” which specializes in “creative menu development” and holds focus groups that can include tastings of dishes that are works in progress. Three years ago, Marks began to feel the recession encroaching on his consumer research business: What his chain restaurant clients really started wanting was “value engineering,” which is pretty much as insidious as it sounds—taking popular menu items and finding ways to produce them for less while still being satisfying enough to the average customer.
That kind of work surely wears on the soul of most people who, at their core, care about quality. Marks started reading Michael Pollan, and he remembered the dairy trucks of his childhood who delivered from small farms at the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. He met Russell Johnston, of Johnston Family Farms, at the Georgia Organics conference in 2009, and he recognized that they could strike a mutually beneficial partnership. Johnston had only recently taken over the farm from his father and no longer wanted to participate in the commodity dairy farming that dominates Georgia.
Marks officially started AtlantaFresh last August, in the kitchens of the FDA-approved facility where he still holds focus groups two or three times a month. The facility is actually very straightforward—clean, efficient, appropriately industrial. One group of vats pasteurizes the milk; another stores the milk as it ferments into tangy yogurt.
A team of workers hand-mixes the flavors into the yogurts, seals the cups, and slaps the labels on.
Ron Marks loves his mozzarella machine, which stretches curds like taffy into moist, fresh cheese. Most smoked mozzarellas on the market are dense, almost rubbery, but Marks’ is supple and juicy.
The AtlantaFresh yogurts already stand out on the market shelves for their sophisticated, dessert-appropriate flavors, including vanilla-caramel, cherry-port, and “Tropical Sweet Heat” (pineapple and mango with a dab of habanero for a gentle spicy hit). Marks says he’ll start producing seasonal flavors once the business gets its rhythm down—he’s already experimented with strawberry-rhubarb and cranberry-orange-sherry. Also look for the company to start producing burrata, the ultra-perishable fusion of mozzarella and fresh cream.
For now, Atlanta Fresh is only available in the state of Georgia. The company already produces five hundred cases of yogurt per week. “How much can you produce and still call yourself an artisan producer?” is a question Marks has started to ask himself. It’s a worthy matter to grapple with, but what an admirable job Marks has already done, combining his longtime food business experience with delicious, creatively conceived products that support the local economy.
(Yogurt and cheese photo credit: John McDuffie for Ellis Studio)