Interview with Culture NY co-founder Jenny Ammirati (A homegrown business bringing delicious yogurt year-round)

At this year's Village Voice Choice Eats festival in the Flat Iron District, Culture: An American Yogurt Company was present offering tastes of one of their signature yogurts as well as cookie yogurt sandwiches and other cool items perfect for a venue heating up with lots of attendees and spicy fare.

Culture has been voted by the Village Voice as one of the 10 Best Frozen Treats, by TimeOut NY as one of the 100 Best Dishes in 2011, and was an Elle Decor staff pick of Where to Eat.

After tasting and hearing about the hype I approached co-founder Jenny Ammirati about doing an interview. (She and her husband Gino make the yogurt and started Culture together.) She was extremely gracious about doing one and in the midst was delayed by the birth of a new child! But she was also kind enough to get back to me soon after such a big life event! So I cannot say how much I appreciate her answering some of my questions about how Culture started and her and Gino's inspiration for what has become a growing treat.


One of the consistencies I have found in interviewing and reading interviews of local bakers is that they didn’t always know they wanted to pursue business in the food industry. Often times it’s kind of an epiphany. You had a career in finance before going to culinary school and starting Culture. Do you feel like finding what you want to do after being in a career you didn't enjoy is a way to get closer to your ideal job? Or do you think perhaps this discovery can occur by chance? 

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of baking with my mom and my sister.  When I was growing up, as often as we could, my sister and I would bake recipes from her Holly Hobby cookbook. (She is still one of the best bakers I know.) When I was eight years old I remember telling my mom that when I grow up I wanted to be a chef. Somehow something changed along the way, after college, I pursued a career in finance and worked in the field for ten years but in my heart I always wanted to work with food. For years I would take part-time jobs in the food industry because it is what I loved doing. Deciding to go to culinary school was really the “Ah ha” moment for me. It is when I felt like pursuing a culinary career changed from a dream to a commitment. It took a long time to get here but I am happy that I am finally doing what I love.


Culture NY has gotten a lot of great press as one of the Best Frozen Treats in New York City in TimeOut NY, Village Voice, and New York Magazine. And what’s been noted is the all-natural/organic ingredients, the fact that everything is made on-site from scratch, and great taste combinations available to customers. Was one of your and your partner Gino’s main criteria for Culture making sure that ingredients came from local sources as well as being natural with no artificial sweeteners or additives?

When we began to make our strained yogurt at home we did a lot of testing and tasting of products on the market. We realized that there are a lot of additives, thickening agents, and artificial flavors & sweeteners in most of the products on the market. In general we prefer to avoid anything artificial in the food that we eat and after our taste testing it became clear that we prefer the taste of yogurt without additives. It became a mission for us to be able to make a great tasting yogurt without these additives. Our yogurt starts with great milk from Hudson Valley Fresh (a cooperative of New York state dairy farms producing some of the highest quality and best milk that you can get); we add our special blend of cultures and nothing more to create our yogurt. We take our fresh yogurt and add real fruit or spices to make our frozen yogurt.


Something else that’s been noted about Culture’s yogurt is that it tastes like yogurt and not an ice cream substitution like some of the mass marketed yogurt many may purchase in stores. You base your frozen yogurt off of the Greek-style yogurt. Were you concerned that perhaps people’s taste buds may be averse to the more natural taste in that perhaps they’d become accustomed to the sweetened version?

We make our frozen yogurt from our fresh Greek Style yogurt that we manufacture in our store at 331 5th Avenue. We sell both Greek Style and our frozen yogurt in the store. When we decided to sell our yogurt it was because my husband and I thought that we had a great tasting product that we loved to eat. When we made it at home we could not get enough of it (we still can’t) and we were confident that people would like it as much as we do. Yogurt has been steadily gaining popularity in the US since the 80’s and because our frozen yogurt is made from our Greek yogurt our frozen yogurt has the same health benefits as our fresh yogurt including calcium, potassium, high-quality protein and live probiotic cultures. In short, we were not worried about it not tasting like ice cream because it’s cold, creamy, and tastes great to us.


Several years ago there was a boom of yogurt chains within the city popping up in Manhattan and extending to the outer boroughs. And in general yogurts found in stores have been pushed as great healthy alternatives in snacking. Gelato shops and smoothie locations have also gotten bigger year after year, particularly with young adults and college students. When you started Culture did you realize that you were picking up on this boom and therefore trying to redefine it?

At some point my husband started eating a lot of Greek style yogurt and decided to make it at home. At the same time I started making toppings to go with the yogurt and spinning it into frozen yogurt with our little ice cream maker. When we decided to open Culture we had been making yogurt at home for some time and we had something that tasted fantastic and we were willing to take a gamble and see if other people agreed with us. Frozen desserts have always held a special place in my heart so the decision to open Culture seemed natural. The fact that it coincided with this boom was more of an accident then anything else.


Culture offers a limited number of offerings in yogurt flavors but a bevy of toppings, one of the most notable and lauded is the maple syrup and blueberries, is this so that customers can enjoy the purity of yogurt with a varied style atop it or is it because you want to limit the amount of yogurts made not wanting to fall into the trap of doing seasonal items. 

We want our customers to be able to enjoy our yogurt on its own or use the toppings to create any flavor combination they may desire. We offer our fresh plain Greek Style yogurt, in fat-free, low-fat, and organic whole milk plus we offer flavored varieties of the fat-free and low-fat Greek Style yogurt. In addition, we have four frozen yogurt options at a time.   We always offer plain, one standard flavor like strawberry or banana, one “lab” flavor that is experimental or a flavor that may not appeal to everyone like strawberry basil, and one whole milk certified organic frozen yogurt option. We try to be seasonal with the flavors when we can be, for example, we offer apple and pumpkin in the fall and we get the apples from our local farmers market. Culture’s own signature toppings like Key Lime Pie and Vermont Maple are available all year around but we also offer two seasonal topping s at a time. This allows us to be creative and take advantage of what is seasonal and local. Raspberry Dream, a combination of a homemade raspberry custard, fresh raspberry sauce, chocolate cookie crumbs and shaved white chocolate and Strawberry Rhubarb Pie, house made strawberry rhubarb compote served with a cobbler topping, just arrived for spring!


The key lime pie, as well as the yogurt sandwich cookies, was wonderful offerings at Village Voice’s Choice Eats this year, especially once the heat of many attendees started to build in the armory. It was a good palate cleanser, coolant from the spicy dishes, and an all-around tasty dessert treat post savory goods. Do you think that there are certain flavors that may not be suitable in yogurt form?

One of the perks of making everything from scratch is that you are free to experiment with as many flavor combinations as you want to. We have tried a pretty wide variety. Chocolate is the one that comes to mind that can be a challenge because chocolate is bitter and yogurt is tart so it can take some trial and error to find the right balance but it is not impossible. Personally I usually prefer the more subtle and fruity combinations but variety is the spice of life!


Admittedly New York City had a pretty tame winter this past year. But is Culture creating more yogurt-based goods to offset the potential for slower business in the colder months? 

We like to stay yogurt centric with our creations because that is what we do best. Our yogurt parfait, made from our fresh Greek Style yogurt, is popular all year-round and our yogurt muffins have developed a fan base of their own. Wash down a house made blueberry yogurt muffin with a drinkable yogurt and you are good to go any time of year. If you are a fan of our frozen yogurt, in the winter we offer special toppings like brownie Sunday supreme which goes great with a cup of our homemade hot chocolate in the colder months.


Besides Facebook, Twitter, and are the other social media sites you use to gain more updates on Culture, where you’ll be and what you’re offering?

Right now we primarily use Facebook, Twitter (@cultureny), and our website as our social media outlets. So follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or visit our website.

Thanks so much Jenny for doing the interview! Wishing you, Gino, and your new baby a great year and Culture continued success!