Special Sauce: The White Moustache’s Homa Dashtaki on Staying Small and Flourishing

Homa Dashtaki eating yogurt

[Photograph: Nicole Franzen. Yogurt photograph: Vicky Wasik.]

On this week’s Special Sauce I continue my delightful conversation with The White Moustache founder Homa Dashtaki.

I asked her how she makes her sinfully rich yogurt. Homa said, "There's nothing I'm doing different than the way I would teach you how to do it at home. And you can make White Moustache yogurt at home, and it's a very magical process, but it's so, so simple. It's just a matter of boiling the milk, letting the milk cool to a certain temperature, and then very mildly letting it incubate. And we are now making yogurt in a vat, in a 79-gallon vat, and we just mimic that process."

She paused before continuing: "And in that vat is the only time that machinery is ever used. It is entirely handled by human hands after that. We take it out of the vat in five-gallon batches, and then it goes into 2 1/2-gallon batches, and then it gets put into an eight-ounce jar, where we put the fruit in on the bottom by hand. And our seasonal flavors of like summer peaches and quince are so much fun to make, and we try to make them as authentically as possible. And this is where my dad and I are screaming at each other, 'Yeah, peel the peaches!' 'No, don't peel the peaches! Leave the skin on.'"

Homa and her father often argue about whether to automate their production, which led her to talk about what her ultimate goal was, which I found surprising. "White Moustache was such a miracle to begin with," Homa says. "Maybe we hold onto that, maybe we're not a food business, maybe we're an advocacy business. Maybe we kind of set an example for how you don't have to get really big and sell to PepsiCo. Maybe you can stay small and flourish."

Who or what determines what’s going to happen to White Moustache? Homa suggests it's not up to her or her dad. But for the full answer to that question, you’re going to have to listen.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats' podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.

Homa Dashtaki: White Moustache was such a miracle to begin with. Maybe we hold onto that, maybe we're not a food business, maybe we're an advocacy business. Maybe we kind of set an example for how you don't have to get really big and sell to PepsiCo. Maybe you can stay small and flourish.

EL: This week I get to continue my fascinating conversation with my new best friend, Homa Dashtaki, the founder of White Moustache Yogurt. So you get to NYC, you didn't win your battle with the Sacramento people, you didn't move to Oregon, even though it would seem to be the perfect place for you to make your yogurt.

HD: Absolutely.

EL: So you end up in Brooklyn. Then what happened?

HD: We just put our heads down and started working. I made my first batch of yogurt in January of 2013 here in the middle of a blizzard. My whole family had to come out.

EL: Well, it's easy, because then you could transport it easily and no one would know, because it's white on white.

HD: It's nice and cold out, so it's all fine.

EL: Okay.

HD: I mean, there's a real stubborn streak in me. I could have just fallen back on my legal degree, I could have done something else, I could-

EL: Gone back to the avocado farm.

HD: Yeah, I missed avocados and smoking by that point. So it would have been great. But you know, went to New York, made yogurt, I took it to four stores. I took it to Gastronomie 491, that was on the Upper West Side.

EL: I remember, on Columbus Avenue, which is closed now.

HD: Which is closed now, heartbreaking. But a gem of a store. I felt very civilized every time I went in, and they took good care of us. But that was the very, very first store in New York City that we ever went to. And then we went to Kalustyan's, Saxelby Cheese, and the Brooklyn Larder. The first four stores, and all of them were like "We'd like to take it. When can you have it?" And I was like "Well, I guess in two weeks." And so I stayed in New York and lived couch-to-couch on my friend's couches.

EL: You were couchsurfing?

HD: And Airbnbs and whatever it took, and just making yogurt, and being almost like drunk giddy on this feeling that people wanted it here, and that it was finally happening again. What I wanted to happen in California was able and possible here in New York, and I just started making it, delivered it to those four stores, and then ... we've just been so fortunate, 'cause it's just been word of mouth to word of mouth to word of mouth to people finding us.

EL: Yeah.

HD: And that summer we went to Smorgasburg and had a yogurt stand, which was very generous of them to include us, because most people who go to Smorgasburg just want barbecue, nobody wants a healthy yogurt parfait.

EL: That's true. You know, Smorgasburg was the first artisanal pop-up food market in New York, and now there are many. There are Smorgasburgs in LA, there are many other Smorgasburg-like places all over the city, but they were places that were good incubators for food businesses like yours.

HD: Absolutely. And they provided other things as well, like not only a platform to get the kind of exposure that we got. Even though we weren't like selling a lot to a ton of people, people were asking us questions, they were curious, it gave us the kind of platform to understand, okay, what are people asking questions about? What isn't landing or is landing? And we sold the musir with the chips, the shallot yogurt with the chips there, and it did kind of do well.

EL: Fascinating.

HD: And that was probably the only place we did well with the savory yogurt. And it also gave us an opportunity to meet other makers, and that's pretty special as well.

EL: And did you know anybody in New York, and were you doing this with your sister, with your dad at that point?

HD: Well, we were making so little, and everyone in my family thought I was crazy, so they were like "Okay, Homa, you can go and make it." And then I could do it just by myself, because we weren't making that much. It was-

EL: And did you know anybody here?

HD: I did. I think I knew Betsy Devine, who made Salvatore BKLYN ricotta. It was in her facility that we first made that batch of yogurt, and she shared a space with Nekisia Davis of Early Bird Granola. And they are just two women who were there in the forefront of the whole foodie movement in Brooklyn, and they're so authentic and such badasses. And I was very fortunate to share space with them for as long as I did. And when I was an attorney, I did practice here in New York City. So in a way, it was coming back home, just in a different income bracket.

EL: Wait, I can't believe you were practicing law again.

HD: No, no, back when I first graduated-

EL: Oh, back when- oh, I see, I see.

HD: Yeah, no, definitely not practicing law.

EL: Yeah, 'cause I thought you'd long ago left the law behind.

HD: No, I mean, I read like a few leases here and there for a few friends, but then I was so consumed by my own personal vendetta against California I was just like, I just need to prove a point that I can make healthy yogurt.

EL: Yeah, so let's talk about the yogurt itself, which is life-changing. I'm not kidding, I'm not just saying that 'cause you're sitting across from me at Special Sauce. It's really amazing. Talk about the process. First of all, why is it so different? Why is it so damned creamy and addictive and seriously delicious, where other yogurts ... I'm not particularly ... I'm going to admit this, I know it's a hard one. I'm not a yogurt person in general, but when Daniel Gritzer, our managing culinary director, told me about it and I had it, I was like "This is it, this is the thing that ... this is what yogurt is supposed to taste like." I love discovering something where you go "Oh, this is what an avocado is supposed to taste like, this is what a peach is supposed to taste like, this is what ..." Those are the moments I live for, you know, as a serious eater. And that's really what I've made my living doing, is telling other people about those moments.

HD: Yeah, well, I feel very grateful that you're including us on that list, because like I said, it almost seems like an accident that I picked this thing that we always took for granted. But I think the reason it does make you feel that way is because I am capturing this ancient time of my ancestors to make this. There's nothing I'm doing different than the way I would teach you how to do it at home. And you can make White Moustache yogurt at home, and it's a very magical process, but it's so, so simple. It's just a matter of boiling the milk, letting the milk cool to a certain temperature, and then very mildly letting it incubate. And we are now making yogurt in a vat, in a 79-gallon vat, and we just mimic that process.

And in that vat is the only time that machinery is ever used. It is entirely handled by human hands after that. We take it out of the vat in five-gallon batches, and then it goes into 2 1/2-gallon batches, and then it gets put into an eight-ounce jar, where we put the fruit in on the bottom by hand. And our seasonal flavors of like summer peaches and quince are so much fun to make, and we try to make them as authentically as possible. And this is where my dad and I are screaming at each other, like "Yeah, peel the peaches," "No, don't peel the peaches. Leave the skin on."

EL: Is that why he was thrown out of the business?

HD: No, I mean, he's still a part of it, but my dad is the one ... this old man is the one who's always like "Let's try and incorporate more robots and automate this." And he's just like "Why are you doing this the old way? You're so backwards." And he finds me frivolous. And a lot of these inefficient ways that I'm doing it, and I'm like "But daddy, what's the point? What is our end goal? Are we really dying to make like hundreds of gallons of yogurt, or do we just want to have a nice community of people producing yogurt, treat our employees well, and kind of ..." White Moustache was such a miracle to begin with, maybe we hold onto that. Maybe we're not a food business, maybe we're an advocacy business. Maybe we kind of set an example for how you don't have to get really big and sell to PepsiCo. Maybe you can stay small and flourish, and stay small and be legit, and stay small and still grow. Because there are ways that we're being very ambitious that have nothing to do with automating the way that my dad wants.

EL: Yeah. So how many employees do you have now?

HD: Seven.

EL: You're approaching big-league Serious Eats status.

HD: Well-

EL: 'Cause we have like 15.

HD: Oh, damn. We're almost there.

EL: But we've been doing it for 12 years, so we have a little more than an employee for every year that we've been in business. I don't know if that's considered scaling or not.

HD: I like that gauge, actually.

EL: So it sounds really simple, but why does it taste so different?

HD: What I know of other commercially made yogurts, and I try not to pay attention, is that they're made in like a split-second. They're made in like a matter of a day, and our yogurt takes three days to go from milk to jar.

EL: So it's time.

HD: It's time.

EL: Time is the ingredient, you're telling me.

HD: Yeah, time. Yep.

EL: So I'm partial to the sour cherry. Sour cherry, cass, which is honey walnut, and date, and then I just add my pecans. And then plain, you make plain Persian and plain Greek.

HD: Correct.

EL: All right. See, I know my stuff.

HD: Yes, absolutely, I'm impressed. And that's kind of all we make. We have a seasonal flavor here and there, and then the savory, and then the flash-in-the-pan of the mint walnut raisin flavor that we call Yalda. Otherwise, that's it. We're ...

EL: And what is the difference between Persian-style yogurt and Greek yogurt?

HD: Well, a very interesting question. So Greek yogurt is known in the market because of ... they just beat us to the market, basically. A lot of cultures strain their yogurt, not just the Greeks. The Armenians, the Iranians, we all strain our yogurt, but now we call it Greek yogurt. So then I was like "Well, fine, our unstrained yogurt's gonna be called Persian yogurt." That's the only difference, because our Persian yogurt is just the yogurt as it comes straight out of the vat and letting it sit, and then whisked, and then the Greek yogurt is just our strained yogurt, where we remove the whey and make it naturally thicker.

EL: Got it. And now you're selling the whey, right?

HD: We're selling the whey, because at home when we had whey ... when you make yogurt at home, you'll naturally get a little bit of whey. It settles on the rim of your bowl, and we just drank it, 'cause it was really hydrating and nutritious and super light. And now that we're making it, we have a lot more than we can just drink ourselves, and so we've tried to present it as a drink to our customers. And I've made a lot of mistakes with it, actually, because the person who's buying my rich, decadent, creamy yogurt is not the same person who's interested in a light, healthy, hydrating drink.

EL: Right.

HD: Also, the first time I took it to market I put it in a big liter bottle and slapped a label on it that said "This is whey, it's delicious." And people were like "What do we do with it?" It was just so foreign, and it wasn't to me, so I didn't really do a good job of explaining it.

EL: That's all right. A lot of people fumble brand extensions, you know.

HD: Yeah.

EL: So you're not the first. By the way, I could tell you lots of ways that I tried to expand Serious Eats that didn't work either. And now you're also selling labneh, right? You're selling ...

HD: Yes.

EL: Yeah.

HD: Yeah, so labneh is a yogurt cheese. So it's strained for 48 hours, and a lot of the whey gets strained out of that, and it's super thick and spreadable and savory. The plain labneh, you can go sweet or savory, like you could turn it into an icing for a cake, but the savory one is really special like for a cheese board or something.

EL: You talk about wanting to grow your business, but grow your business in a way that you're comfortable with. Which is something that we all struggle with, I struggled with it at Serious Eats, and everyone you talk to struggles with this very same question. So where do you want to take the business? Do you want Chobani or Dannon to buy you if they let you do your thing, or do you think that those are mutually exclusive?

HD: Well, I guess what's the point of them buying me? Is it just to be associated with a big brand? Is it to ... I think this is where I get stuck with thinking about the future of my business. Up until this point it's really just been my vision of White Moustache, and I listen ... I feel like I just listen to the yogurt. Like okay, what do you want to do next?

EL: Whoa, wait. I have to consider that. Listen to the yogurt. Are you saying that you're a yogurt whisperer?

HD: Well, it's alive, right? All those billions of probiotics that come to life, and then this is what launched the line of the whey drinks. It was like there was all this whey, and it was like it was saying "Help me find a home," and I'm like "Okay."

EL: And was the yogurt speaking in Farsi or English?

HD: It depends on what mood it was in. When it was yelling at me, it was in Farsi.

EL: God.

HD: It was like "You're wasting me, you gotta get on it." That's why the drinks came about, the popsicles came about, because it felt like those were neglected parts of the business. And so when I think about growing my business, I really, I feel like I've hit a wall. My brain is not ... it's tapped out now. How do we grow? And this is where you find interesting partners who inspire you. We were approached by Eataly, who we sell to here in New York, and they opened up a shop in California, in Los Angeles. And they asked if we want to be their exclusive yogurt maker in-house. And I was like "Whoa, you can't go back to California. California hates us."

EL: "I think I'm banned in California."

HD: Yeah, I'm like "You don't want me there, I kind of pissed off a lot of people." But they made it happen, and now we're making yogurt for one small store, it happens to be Eataly, which is glorious, in LA. And to me, that was not on my radar, it really was bad timing too, because we were so busy here with popsicles in the way. But it was an opportunity we couldn't pass up and that made a lot of sense and that found us. I feel like if you are so true to the brand and true to the product, and you just listen to it, like the yogurt was never like "You need to put blueberries in me," or "Really automate this one process," or "Do a shortcut here." As long as we stay true to the process and the timing, I mean, this almost sounds very California hippie, but I think the right opportunities can find you. And this opportunity in Eataly has been just that, because not only do we have a very small store that we can produce for, I also personally feel validated after the whole California experience.

EL: See, you can go home again.

HD: You can go home again. And it's been a great place to experiment with different things, like smoothies and the savory yogurts and the whey drinks, which the California customer's more receptive to than the New York customer.

EL: So it could be, you could end up in all the Eatalys on the same basis. And did you have to go and train the people in California?

HD: I went myself, yeah. I went myself, and because I have a huge Zoroastrian community there, you know, we just tapped into that market. And we have two employees, Nate and Orhun, who I personally trained for months to make it, and they're just incredible. They're now part of the White Moustache family.

EL: That's great, I'm gonna put on my small business advisory hat.

HD: Yes, please.

EL: Why couldn't you do that in every Whole Foods in America?

HD: I feel paralyzed by that thought, because I think of it as having 50 children, which I would love to have 50 children, but I'm worried I'm gonna neglect like number 47. And that's why that thought seems daunting to me. And I know that I don't have to personally micromanage every one of them, and I've gotten really good at letting go of control, especially because now I feel like if I take care of my staff, the Nate, the Orhuns, the Renas of the world, they will take care of my product. So my practice is to learn how to train people and to trust them with my product.

But there's two things about not doing what you said, about being in all the Whole Foods. One is like, what does happen at that scale, but also what's the point? What's the point of me doing that? Why can't somebody else make - like somebody in Idaho should be making yogurt for Idahoans.

EL: Got it.

HD: You know.

EL: Plus, you might run out of Zoroastrian communities.

HD: Where's all my family labor?

EL: You know, there's that.

HD: Yeah.

EL: It is such an interesting question, because every business that starts in a farmer's market or starts in a Smorgasburg has to answer this question. Justin's Peanut Butter Cups, which I love, started in a farmer's market in Boulder, Colorado. And just sold for whatever it is, $300 million, that was the direction he decided to go. But you're actually making two points. Number one is, you don't know that you could control the process and the product. And number two, you are a genuine believer in local food.

HD: And micro-economies, yeah.

EL: Yeah.

HD: And that's to say I'm more for like the multiple locations, like the White Moustache in New York and the White Moustache in LA, like drawing milk from up northern California and drawing milk from the Hudson Valley for our respective shops, as opposed to one spot that has like yogurt for both cities. So I feel like those are two micro-economies that we're supporting. But also back to the first point about the control, I think that is a personal capacity thing, and I will admit that just 'cause I've hit a wall on it doesn't mean that it's not something that we can't overcome. It's more the latter. What's the real point, what's the endgame, what kind of food community do we want to have? What kind of food businesses do we want to have? Do we want to make room for everybody to be a little bit in the market? I don't feel like I'm not ambitious by saying that either.

EL: I don't think anyone listening to this episode of Special Sauce would say that you lack ambition. I don't know why I say that. So all right, now it's time for the Special Sauce all-you-can-answer buffet. So who's at your last supper, no family allowed, living or dead, could be anybody? Like you're only limited by the fact that you can't have your family, 'cause everyone always used to say "my family."

HD: Oh, really?

EL: Yeah.

HD: I feel awful, I didn't even think about them. I see them all the time. Last supper, or ... oh, very last supper.

EL: Yeah.

HD: All right, so last dinner I would have Mahatma Gandhi.

EL: Okay.

HD: I'd have Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I would have Freddy Mercury, and ...

EL: First of all, the idea of Freddy Mercury, can I just stop you? Mahatma Gandhi and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is so awesome, I don't even know what to say.

HD: Well, Freddy Mercury was Zoroastrian, just in case that adds some context.

EL: I should have known that.

HD: Right, well, I think that's why I would pick him. Yeah, I think those three would ... and I love an awkward dinner. Like you just have people that might be like a little off with each other, and that's going to be very interesting. So I want my last dinner to be like slightly on edge, to be like "Okay, I'm ready to go, I'm ready to go. Let's wrap this up."

EL: And then, and then Freddy will serenade you with "We Will Rock You."

HD: Absolutely, yep.

EL: 'Cause otherwise you can't let him up from the table.

HD: No, no. Yeah, that's right. He's gotta do his part.

EL: So what are you eating?

HD: Soup.

EL: Soup.

HD: Soup is my all-time favorite.

EL: What kind of soup?

HD: This morning I had borscht for breakfast. We have ...

EL: You know, because you were hearkening back to your Russian Jewish ancestors.

HD: Right, exactly. Yeah, with a dollop of yogurt on top. But it was just, it really hit the spot. But soup to me is just so simple to cook, you can make a huge stock pot of it and have it go ... yeah, soup.

EL: All right, so, but it has to be multi-course. It's your last supper, it can't be one thing.

HD: Oh, this is what I'm eating at the last supper, not right now?

EL: Yeah, so soup is one thing.

HD: Oh, yeah, oh, at the last supper. No, I would have Persian rice with tahdig, which is the rice crust, crispy rice, and I would have musir, which is the shallot yogurt, with that. I would have ghormeh sabzi, which is a green herb stew, and I would have ... this is at random, but Indian chaat with yogurt drizzled on top and tamarind sauce and chutney. And then for dessert I would have tiramisu.

EL: Tiramisu, that famous Zoroastrian dish.

HD: Yeah.

EL: The national dish of Zoroastria.

HD: I just love that decadent, creamy taste of anything.

EL: That's hilarious.

HD: Yeah. My people can adapt.

EL: So what do you cook when there's nothing in the house to eat?

HD: Toast.

EL: Toast. Avocado toast, or whatever's around?

HD: It's very British, butter, jam toast with some tea, and call it a meal.

EL: I love that. And what's always in your fridge?

HD: Yogurt.

EL: Yogurt.

HD: I guess yogurt's ... I mean, that's too obvious an answer.

EL: Right.

HD: Butter.

EL: Basically dairy products. That's what we find in your fridge.

HD: Correct. Yeah, exactly.

EL: Okay. Do you have a guilty pleasure?

HD: Yes. And I'm very ashamed to admit this, but not very ashamed, 'cause if I got a box of it I would be so thrilled, is those like totally commercial little Hostess cherry pies that come in the prepackaging. Whenever I'm having a bad day, I need one of those. It makes me so happy.

EL: And does it have to be Hostess, or any brand will do?

HD: Any brand, at that point.

EL: At that point you're not brand-specific.

HD: No, you just want that trash in your mouth. It's so great. It's so nostalgic and ...

EL: I have a lot of those too, like I have to say that I'm a huge peanut butter cup fan. And although I would like them to be dark chocolate, sometimes it doesn't even matter. And it's the same thing, where it's like what do you reach for? Like I had a three-hour journey in an Uber from our office in Sunset Park last night in the middle of the snowstorm, and he gave me some Swedish Fish. It was the best thing I've ever tasted in my life. Because context is everything.

HD: Everything, everything.

EL: So what's on your nightstand now, book-wise?

HD: I haven't read a book in a long time, with the baby and work and everything, but ...

EL: Got it. Before the baby, what was the last book you read that ...

HD: It was Sick by Porochista Khakpour. It's this woman who had Lyme disease and talks about what it's like to be sick in America as a woman and a woman of color. And it's such a fascinating read, 'cause their story is so devastating, and yet somehow you feel light after it. And-

EL: Sick, S-I-C-K?

HD: S-I-C-K, yep.

EL: All right, I'm gonna read it.

HD: It's amazing.

EL: Who's had the greatest influence on you in your career? Probably not your dad.

HD: No, 'cause I disagree with him all the time.

EL: Yeah.

HD: Betsy Devine of Salvatore Brooklyn Ricotta. Just felt like such a beacon at such a dark time. And I respect so much about her, and just her attitude in general, and she's an extremely pleasant human being. I'm very honored to have shared space with her at such a time, when we were first getting off the ground.

EL: Tell us about the baby.

HD: Oh-

EL: First of all, I can't believe you haven't shown me any pictures.

HD: You know, I'm so bad, I got pregnant and had a baby and didn't tell anybody. It was just like, I was not processing the information.

EL: You told the, I presume you told the father.

HD: Yeah, he knew, yeah. But it didn't even sink in for him until he saw her. I was like "Dude, you need to change some of your priorities." He's like "Yeah, later maybe." So we're both pretty chill, a little too much. But she's great. Her name is Zomorod, and it means emeralds in Farsi, and my parents were like "Why are you giving her such an intense, ancient Iranian name?" It's like naming your child Gertrude, I guess, in English. And they're like "Why?" And I was like "Look, my kid is going to be ... she's got an Italian last name, she's gonna be very American, I just want her to have something that reminds her daily that she's Iranian." And they're like "Yeah, you did it." But she's so precious, and like I said, in a way she's kind of slowed me down a lot, work-wise and life-wise, and it's been a real blessing.

EL: And she's six months now?

HD: She's four months.

EL: Four months. Does Zomorod eat yogurt?

HD: Zomorod's first food, I was like "Oh, it's gonna be yogurt 'cause it has to be." But we were in a situation where we had just harvested a whole bunch of pomegranates from our yard in California a month ago, and her first food was actually pomegranate juice. And I just like squeezed a few seeds into a spoon and gave her the juice of that. So that was her first food.

EL: Nice. Yeah, I thought you were gonna say a Hostess cherry pie.

HD: I know. She wasn't ready.

EL: All right. So it's just been declared Homa Dashtaki Day all over the world. What's happening on that day?

HD: Everyone gets a Hostess cherry pie.

EL: An excellent start to the day.

HD: There's definitely a parade. You know, I don't remember where I read this, but there's this one thought that tax day should be a really special day. Like we should live in a society that, when it's the day to pay your taxes, we should all rejoice and be like "Yay, we're gonna contribute to schools and we're gonna contribute to hospitals and we're gonna contribute to roads." Like everyone would be really proud of tax day. And I think if it's like Homa Dashtaki Day, I would like everyone to be really excited to go to work. 'Cause I value work so much, and the thought of someone not being super excited to go and either do their craft or hate their craft but love their colleagues, it's just like everyone's really happy to go to work day.

EL: I love that, I love that.

HD: That's mine.

EL: Thank you so much for sharing this Special Sauce with us, Homa Dashtaki. It's been an honor, really, an honor and a pleasure to have you with us. By all means make it your business as Serious Eaters to seek out White Moustache yogurt, even though Homa's making it hard to find. When you do find it, it's worth every penny and more. And please start making peach and savory shallot yogurt again soon. I guess peach we're gonna have to wait for the summer, right, Homa?

HD: Yeah.

EL: But anyway, thank you again. It's really been a pleasure.

HD: Thank you so much, Ed.

EL: So long, Serious Eaters. We'll see you next time.