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Dairy pulls yogurt maker to midstate region

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Afiyet olsun! It's the Turkish way of saying “bon appetit,” or “enjoy your meal.”

Afiyet also is the name of a new yogurt brand being produced in Cumberland County, in a new factory operated by Country Food LLC. The company’s Turkish-born founder, Mesut “Mike” Baysal, and his partners hope capitalizing on Americans’ growing appetite for yogurt products, especially the Greek-style product, will be a formula for success.

Their business is initially focused on serving ethnic communities in Chicago and the greater New York area. But there’s a reason Baysal, an Illinois resident, and partners Erdogan Ceylan and Birol Gule came to the midstate: milk, lots of it, and in high quality, too.

Throw in easy access to Interstate highways – an oft-cited reason for the midstate’s popularity as a warehousing and distribution center – and Baysal found an ideal location.

Using milk from Lancaster County’s King’s Kreamery, Country Food launched production in early March, Baysal said. By the second week of the month, the company’s products had reached store shelves in the Chicago area through a distributor in that region.

The USDA-certified plant operates in a former warehouse in Monroe Township, outside Mechanicsburg. It features 12,000 square feet of operations space and about 3,000 square feet of warehousing space. So far, there are just four employees – Baysal and three other people.

Baysal, a veteran food scientist, is putting in long hours and wearing many hats, but he hopes to employ more people as the business grows.

Expertise and a quality product are one element of growth. So, too, Baysal knows, will be marketing and distribution.

The wheels started turning thanks to a $295,000 loan guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which supplemented investments made by by Baysal and his partners.

“After renovation of the property and purchase of the equipment, the partners needed working capital to finish their dream,” said Carl Bieber, a Conshohocken-based SBA loan specialist at Firstrust Bank. which made the loan to Country Food.

Country Food was connected with Firstrust through the SBA.

Bieber and SBA representatives toured the factory shortly after its opening to congratulate Baysal and to see the production process in person.

“This is probably the coolest part of the job – getting to actually visit the business,” said Robert Goza, lead economic development specialist with the SBA’s Eastern Pennsylvania district office, which is in King of Prussia.

Goza, SBA district deputy director Michael Kane and Bieber sipped some Afiyet yogurt drink and tasted dishes of plain Greek yogurt around a conference table as Baysal talked about the business and production.

Lenders like Firstrust actually make the loans, Kane explained, but the SBA guarantees them. That way, banks feel more secure lending to small firms and startups that may not have the business experience and collateral lenders typically prefer, while the borrowers get access to capital they need to grow and gain experience.

Last fiscal year, the district office secured 1,532 loans worth $512 million, Kane said.

“We really support all different kinds of businesses,” he added.

The Afiyet product line made by Country Food LLC includes a yogurt drink.
The Afiyet product line made by Country Food LLC includes a yogurt drink. - ()

Small businesses create two out of three new private sector jobs, while half of all working Americans either own or work for small businesses, he added.

“America’s small businesses are the engine of our economy,” Kane said.

Baysal believes that, too. In addition to buying milk from a local dairy, he said the company is looking to procure packaging supplies from local companies.

Before anyone around the table had taken a spoonful or a sip, Baysal was quick to point out that the company’s yogurt drink is different from the sweetened and fruit-flavored yogurt drinks familiar to many Americans. Country Food’s plain yogurt drink has a more savory flavor, he explained. It is traditionally consumed in Turkey and many eastern countries as a refreshing beverage that replenishes nutrients on hot days.

What was the verdict?

Everyone around the table eagerly downed their samples, comparing the drink favorably with buttermilk, for example.

Fruit-flavored varieties may be an option in the future, but for now Afiyet comes only in a traditional plain version. In that, Baysal is sticking to what he knows his target market likes best.

“My motto is, make what the customer wants, first,” he said.

More than just a cultural favorite, Baysal believes yogurt offers many health benefits, and he’d like to see more people drinking the dairy beverage than sodas or other less healthy products.

“I believe in full fat,” he said. “It’s very good for your bones, your spinal cord, your joints, as long as you consume it in moderation.”

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Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rogerd@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @rogerdupuis2.

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