“When you arrive in a foreign country, the first thing you seek out is familiar foods,” Kai Gong, CEO of Prime Plus Food Inc. says. “That’s why I started making my own yogurt.”
Born and raised in Beijing, Gong immigrated to America in the 1990s. He had grown up in the heart of Beijing right next to the Forbidden City. As he remembers it, life there was idyllic and he spent his childhood running around in the hutongs, narrow alleyways formed by traditional courtyard residences, and swimming in the local ponds and rivers. Every day before school, he’d pick up a fresh yogurt from the convenience store — bottled up in a signature small ceramic vase and covered with a thin wax film. It was the perfect snack; his ideal pick-me-up. The vase could be recycled back to the convenience store and the yogurt was always fresh.
Beijing-style yogurt is different from its Western counterparts in many different ways. For one, it is consumed with a straw instead of a spoon, Production-wise, American-style yogurt is usually fermented, stirred, and then packaged. Beijing yogurt, on the other hand, is not stirred and is left to ferment in the cup.
The result: a much more tart yogurt that is thicker than say, Yoplait yogurt, but significantly more thin than Greek yogurt.
“I started experimenting with yogurt-making at home here in Los Angeles and a lot of my friends from Northern China really liked it,” Gong says.
While dairy products are scarce in most Chinese provinces, northern China has a special affinity for thick cow's milk yogurt. It pairs well with the constant parade of noodles and heavily seasoned meats typical of northern Chinese cuisine. Because it soothes the stomach, yogurt is also common in southwest provinces like Sichuan and Yunnan that are renown for their spicy meals. The provinces of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang also do yogurt, but with yaks instead of cows. The nomadic herders of the aforementioned provinces rely on the dairy product to help digest their meat and dough-heavy meals; leafy vegetables aren't a regular part of their diet.
In 2006, Gong saw the frozen yogurt craze take over Los Angeles and noticed that fro-yo tasted extremely similar to the yogurt of his childhood. He decided to capitalize on the opportunity and opened Blue Cherry Yogurt Bar in Alhambra. At Blue Cherry, on top of operating a standard frozen yogurt bar, he began to sell small bottles of Beijing-style yogurt as an experiment.
“Pretty soon, I couldn’t meet demand anymore. There were Chinese people driving from as far as Santa Barbara trying to stock up on the yogurt,” he says.
Gong closed Blue Cherry and spent five years researching how to make Beijing yogurt into a viable, scalable business.
In 2011, he opened up Prime Plus Food and today he manufacturers six different yogurt flavors under the brand Beijing Yogurt. The factory has the production capability of 100,000 yogurts and currently cranks out 10,000 to 20,000 cups a day on average.
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All the products are produced in Pomona. The yogurt can be found at many Chinese restaurants and supermarkets throughout the San Gabriel Valley and some Vons and Pavilions stores in Pasadena, Arcadia and Walnut.
“I find that many Westerners are skeptical about Chinese yogurt. They are not sure if it is a trustworthy product,” he says. “But once they try it, they always like it. It's drinkable, it's sweet and sour, it's full of calcium, and it has a lot of good probiotics.”