Ron Marks calls himself the “Big Cheese” of AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery. A chef and menu developer, formally trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Marks was reinventing his business in 2009 and thinking about food trends. “I decided it was a good time to get into the Greek yogurt business. I think I was right. Five years ago, Greek yogurt was only five percent of total yogurt sales. Now it’s 40 percent.”
As the "Big Cheese," he’s the guy who spearheads development of the creamery’s flavors. “We pack 22 different varieties with four that are seasonal. We introduce two or three new flavors every year, and we retire two or three. We just brought back our Strawberry Basil & Balsamic yogurt and will be launching a new summer flavor, Pina Colada. It’s coconut and pineapple with some rum flavor.”
Marks says creating new flavors is more art than science. “We look at American and international cuisines for well-established flavor profiles and then think about how to adapt them.”
When he was creating AtlantaFresh’s popular Mango Pineapple Habanero flavor, he started by thinking about Caribbean cuisine. The Black Cherry & Port Wine flavor comes from a European point-of-view.
Similar considerations go into the decision to retire flavors and introduce new ones. “We’re retiring our Mexico City Style Chocolate and replacing it with Chocolate Malted. I think it will be a flavor that’s more accessible.”
Marks still goes in person to do demos at stores like Whole Foods and that’s one of the ways he checks in with customers. “We launched Lemon Custard Royale last year. Its lighter, creamier flavor was created on the basis of lots of folks asking for citrus-flavored yogurts.”
He says the acidic flavors are tougher to create because the yogurt is already an acidic product. “We finished the Lemon Custard with some strong notes of vanilla and almond. It confuses your tongue and takes away from the acid.” Key Lime is in the works now. “We are also working on a new line of decadent yogurts which will be made with whole milk yogurt to add to its luxury and richness.”
And he hosts tasting panels with regular customers. “Most of the time, people can’t tell you the new stuff they want to eat. But once they try it, they can tell you if they like it and would buy it. You want flavors to be interesting enough to make it something they want to try, but not something so strange or bizarre that they won’t risk trying it.”
He’s developed a 60-day protocol for creating new flavors. To create French Roast Coffee, AtlantaFresh’s best selling flavor, he went through 12 different formulations to find just the right one.
The milk for all AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery yogurt, and the creamery’s new line of bottled milk, comes from Newberry Farm in Waynesboro, Georgia. Marks buys all of the farm’s production for use in either the creamery’s Greek yogurt or their bottled milk. The milk is certified non-GMO and 100 percent grassfed.
Summer 2016 the creamery began producing half gallons and quarts of chocolate, buttermilk, whole milk, two percent and fat free milk and pints of chocolate, whole milk, whipping cream and half-and-half. “All of the milk items are non-homogenized old-fashioned cream-top style and you can see the cream rise to the top of the bottle.”
When he first opened the creamery with his son Andrew and three other employees, he was processing about 300 gallons of milk a week. With this addition of bottled milk, the company’s now 28 employees will be processing 23,000 gallons of milk a week, about two-thirds of it going into the bottled milk products.
Marks credits part of his success to being part of the Atlanta local food movement. “Our first customers were Star Provisions and Alon’s, and we sold at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market that first year. We continue selling there to this day. We’re an Atlanta-based company and we think the Peachtree Road Farmers Market was instrumental in getting us established as a credible food artisan in the city. We also sell at the Grant Park, Brookhaven, Freedom and Tucker farmers markets. Our products are also available at 130 Whole Foods stores nationwide, where they carry our full line of fresh milk and Greek yogurt.”
You can also visit the company store at the creamery in Norcross. It’s open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. “Drop on by and get a full tasting of everything we make,” offers Marks.