Meet The Probiotic Pioneers Behind Nancy’s Yogurt

When Chuck and Sue Kesey launched the iconic brand in 1970, they helped start a cultural revolution. Here’s their story, an inspiring tale that includes collaborations with chefs and an appearance by The Grateful Dead.

Way Back When

It’s probably difficult to imagine a time when probiotic products weren’t packed on supermarket shelves, touting the good-for-your-gut effects of everything from drinks like kombucha to yogurt to tangy sauerkraut and pickles.

But that’s exactly where Chuck and Sue Kesey were in 1970 when they launched the first company in the US to add Acidophilus to its yogurt. The former dairy farmers were definitely on the forefront of a dramatic shift in the universe.

“That was the exact point in time when we were beginning to change the way we think about everything. People were saying wait a minute, there’s a better way of doing things,” said Sue in a recent phone interview.

She credits her husband with couple’s move from selling pushing milk to yogurt: “Chuck has always had a nose for what’s going to work. We wanted to do something unique, something that was us.”

strong word-of-mouth

Sixty-plus years ago, building a brand was a true grassroots effort. “We spent a lot of time visiting health food stores that were just opening and looking for products to put on the shelf,” Sue said.

The yogurt’s stellar taste and velvety texture quickly developed up a devoted following. Nancy’s became Nancy’s early on, a tribute to the creamery’s bookkeeper who helped develop the classic recipe. The intriguing origin story is covered on the company’s website:

“Nancy Van Brasch Hamren had been making yogurt at home in San Francisco for years before moving to Springfield to join the Creamery as its bookkeeper. Her grandmother’s traditional recipes were simple, time-tested, and natural—just the type of food more of the Kesey’s own family and neighbors were turning toward. Nancy shared her technique, and Chuck had one more ingredient in mind: A relatively unknown, hardly pronounceable, microscopic bacteria that’d soon help put Springfield Creamery—and its bookkeeper—on the map. ”

Nancy often answered the phones in those early days with this greeting: “Springfield Creamery, this is Nancy.” When customers began asking for “Nancy’s Yogurt,” the name stuck.

While an extensive lineup of Nancy’s products are now available in all 50 states, there were some lean times in the beginning. Which led to Chuck – brother of legendary novelist Ken Kesey – to invite The Grateful Dead to play a benefit show for the struggling creamery. Tickets were $3.50 and 20,000 fans showed up in a tiny town near Eugene, Ore., on a hot summer day in 1972. The proceeds kept the creamery afloat. The concert was later featured in a 2013 documentary called Sunshine Daydream. Far out, man.

That was then, this is now

Consumers now have hundreds of options when it comes to yogurt, including sugar-y creations packed into easy-to-eat containers for on-the-go snacking. It’s sometimes a challenge to cultivate the next generation of fermented foods fans.

“Not very much has changed for us. We’re still using the same recipes, adding new probiotic strains whenever we have the opportunity, after they’ve been deeply researched,” Sue said. “The world has changed, though, with crazy competition for shelf space.”

She said it was a positive step when major food companies began promoting probiotics in the 1990s: “It helped educate the consumer about the benefits associated with eating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt.”

Through the years, Nancy’s has branched out, growing its lineup to include cream cheese, sour cream and kefir. Organic yogurt made from grass-fed cow’s milk has been a big hit, as has the dairy alternatives such as the oat milk based yogurt.

While most Nancy’s customers are home cooks, there are some chefs who have become enthusiastic supporters over the years.

A very cool chef collaboration

Cathy Whims popped onto the radar of the folks at Nancy’s some 15 years ago. “She had a Nancy’s yogurt panna cotta on the dessert menu at Nostrana,” said Sheryl Kesey Thompson, the company’s director of operations. “We adore each.”

Whims developed recipes showcasing Nancy’s over the years, most recently creating a savory flan for Mother’s Day. The Sformato showcases Nancy’s cream cheese, its tangy richness balance by the finishing flourish of spring asparagus and watercress.

The Kesey family typically celebrates the holiday with a potluck picnic followed by a walk in the nearby woods. But the clan doesn’t need a special occasion to hang out. “We don’t just work together, we genuinely like each other,” Sheryl said.

Here’s chef Cathy Whims recipe for Nancy’s Cream Cheese and Parmesan Sformato:

Ingredients

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter (plus some for buttering pan)

2 Tbsp. flour

⅔ C milk, warmed

3 large eggs

½ C Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated

⅔ C Nancy’s Cultured Cream Cheese

1 bunch of asparagus (trimmed)

½ bunch watercress whole sprigs (slightly stemmed)

¼ tsp. absolute

¼ tsp. pepper

1 quart boiling water

dressing

1 Tbsp. Lemon Juice

2 Tbsp. Olive Oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Butter an 8-inch Pyrex square or 9-inch bread pan. Chill in the refrigerator just until butter is cold. Butter the pan again to ensure easy un-molding. Bring quart water to a simmer for the water bath.

Prepare béchamel sauce: Melt butter in a small saucepan. Add flour and stir over low heat for a minute or two. Remove from heat and whisk in warm milk. Return to medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking all along until mixture thickens, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Place béchamel in a food processor, add cream cheese and parmesan, and process until smooth. Add eggs, salt and pepper and process again until smooth, scraping sides if needed.

Pour mixture into buttered pan and place the pan in a larger roasting pan (needs 2” lip). Into the outer pan, pour in enough simmering water to reach about up to 1 inch up the sides of the pan. Cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil and bake until just set, about 25 minutes (or until the knife inserted in the center comes out clean). Sformato can be made a day in advance.

While sformato is baking, prep asparagus and watercress.

For asparagus, boil 1-2 inches of water in a large saute pan, add 2 tsp. salt and submerge asparagus, cooking till crisp-tender, about 6 minutes. Remove from water and drain carefully.

For vinaigrette, in a small bowl blend olive oil and lemon with salt and pepper. Place asparagus on a plate and dress with vinaigrette.

When sformato is done, let it rest for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the sides of the pan and tap sides to loosen. Place your serving platter on top of the sformato and flip the pan to un-mold. Garnish with dressed asparagus and decorate with watercress sprigs.

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