Today we had the opportunity to visit and tour a Yoplait yogurt plant! Yoplait is owned by General Mills. The white canisters you see in the picture are actually 30,000 gallon cannisters, each containing a different type of yogurt (regular, lite, Go-gurt, etc). They are all plain flavors in the canisters; the flavors are mixed in right before they get packaged in the cup.

I had to wear all the following things to tour the yogurt plant: hard hat, hair net, goggles, smock and foot covers.

We observed the process of manufacturing three types of yogurt: regular cup yogurt, Go-gurt and Mountain High (a new Yoplait brand designed as a cooking yogurt, sold in large tubs). Interestingly, the latter is actually fermented right in the tub that its shipped to the consumer in, and this actually happens in a hot room of 120 degrees.

The machine lines at the factory are tremendously complicated and pricey. In fact, the most recent one cost $50 million to purchase. However, 5 out of 14 production lines were not active. Why?

Unfortunately for General Mills, they sort of missed the boat on a key yogurt trend. This plant had year-over-year growth of 9.8% for nearly 15 years, which is fantastic in the food world. However, just in the past 2 years, growth has dropped by 22%, leading to the stilling of those 5 dormant lines. The reason: Greek yogurt. Interestingly, from a marketing standpoint, Greek yogurt is perceived by the market as more of a meal replacement rather than a snack food. Of course, its been extremely well-received, as evidence by the growth of Chobani. Yogurt was actually recently named the Food of the Decade due to the growth both of Greek yogurt and of frozen yogurt places like Pinkberry, Menchies, Yogurtland, etc. Its experienced explosive growth, and was actually a recession-proof food item.

Why does Greek yogurt cost so much more than normal yogurt? Greek yogurt is produced by straining the moisture out of milk to create that thick, creamy consistency with high protein content. However, this means that theres a ton of waste. In fact, 60% of the starting ingredients to make Greek yogurt are eventually thrown away.

In any case, the plant visit was a really illuminating visit because it really made me think about the scale of operations needed to produce these products on such a large scale. Its one thing to invent some tasty food in your test kitchen; its another to scale that up for national distribution. Additionally, the complexity of those production machines gives me some idea of how hard it is to change packaging, as the machines actually are dependent on certain types of packaging inputs to perform.

Of course, we also got to eat a lot of yogurt and it tastes even better right off the assembly line!