The dessert course came out late in the evening. I’d almost slipped away a few minutes before—I was tired; it was cold; it was past time to go home. But my friend poured me more wine, and dessert plates swept into the room, landing softly on our table. A glossy white quenelle of whipped coconut yogurt sat nestled on the corner of the plate; I took a bite. Okay, I thought. This was worth staying for.

The yogurt was from a company called Anita’s, and it was the product of years of obsessive development by the chef and baker, Anita Shepherd. Shepherd developed the cultured “yogurt alternative” (FDA rules demand that the term “yogurt” only be used for dairy-based products) after she went vegan. Yogurt had played a key role in many of her non-vegan recipes, and she didn’t want to leave behind the tang and richness it imparted to her food. But all the options on the market tasted gummy or pallid, or were filled with stabilizers and additives.

Anita Shepherd, founder of Anita’s Coconut Yogurt

Photo by Alex Lau

“I didn’t want to take dairy out of [a recipe] and just end up replacing it with a whole list of other ingredients,” Shepherd says, leaning on a stainless steel table in her production center in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A giant fermenting tank clanged and whirred behind her, and the air hung heavy with the smell of coconut.

Shepherd’s parents were scientists, and she has an undergraduate degree in biology, so experimentation didn’t intimidate her. She set out to develop a truly great non-dairy yogurt. “There were so many variables,” she says, ticking them off on her fingers. “Milk, temperature, weather, cultures…So many ways things could go wrong.”

She worked out a systematic experiment design, taught herself about bacterial cultures, and covered the countertops in her kitchen with test batches. She wanted to focus her non-dairy adventures on coconut, because of its richness and flavor, so she tested brand after brand of coconut milk until she found a good one. She fed her experiments to chef friends in New York, soliciting feedback on flavor and texture.

Yogurt-making equipment at Shepherd’s production facility in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Photo by Alex Lau

In dairy-based yogurt production, bacteria eat milk’s natural sugars, converting them to lactic acid, which provides that slightly tart flavor. Coconut milk—made from coconut meat and water—doesn’t have as many natural sugars available to be fermented, so naturally sweet coconut water is a necessary addition. It was remarkably hard, Shepherd says, to find coconut milks and waters that weren’t filled with preservatives and stabilizers, but she was committed to making a product without them. “It was the biggest thing that mattered to me. I didn’t want gums, or starches, or tapioca,” she says. “Everyone I talked to told me that was impossible, that non-dairy yogurts couldn’t work without the extra stuff.”

Finally, three years into the grand experiment, Shepherd produced a yogurt that was up to her standards. She started selling quarts in stores around New York and distributing buckets of it to chefs around the city. Word spread quickly, and her customer base grew. Now, about a third of what she makes goes directly to restaurants and food service companies, which is also where demand is growing the fastest; Shepherd recently fulfilled big orders for Blue Apron and Le Pain Quotidien. “Scaling up is the new issue for us,” she says, sweeping her arm through the warm, coconut-laden air of the facility, which is packed efficiently with pallets of coconut milk among the yogurt-making equipment.

Shepherd’s biggest challenge now is scaling up to meet demand.

Photo by Alex Lau

She won’t say exactly where her ingredients come from, but says she gets her coconut milk from “a local Thai family that sources ingredients from Thailand,” and her coconut water from the Philippines (Coconuts grown for meat are different from coconuts grown for water, and the two varieties are harvested at different times). She says she’s testing out a new culture, developed for her by a small company who loved her yogurt and wanted to provide her with a more robust probiotic blend.

Before I go, I ask Shepherd what she’d like to see someone do with her yogurt. “I heard an interview with Marcus Samuelsson after his cookbook came out, and he said that the secret to his fried chicken was that he used coconut milk,” she says, her excitement palatable. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to get this to Marcus Samuelsson!’”

I hadn’t tasted Anita’s yogurt since that dinner, and had forgotten how good it was until I tried it again a few days after my visit. Straight from the container, it’s rich, clean, and barely sweet, with a thick layer of gently tangy cream in the top. Since then, I’ve used it in place of crème fraiche on a savory tart, eaten it with strawberries for dessert, and spread it like butter on top of sourdough waffles for breakfast; it hasn’t let me down yet.

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