“The whole time Gino was making yogurt at home and I was making toppings for the yogurt…And we’d be eating our yogurt and going, “What should we do?” Until one day we were like, wait a minute, we’re making this great yogurt every day, this is what we’re going to do!”
photos and story by Howard Walfish
On April 7th, 2011, Jenny and Gino Ammirati opened Culture, a yogurt shop on 5th Ave in Park Slope. They make all of their yogurt and toppings from scratch in-house, and they make frozen yogurt out of their fresh yogurt. I first heard about Culture on FIPS, which posted an over-the-top review, and I resolved to stop by. At first taste, I was blown away by the quality, flavor and texture of the frozen yogurt — instead of being a sweet ice cream substitute, it actually tasted like yogurt. A few days after my second visit I got a call from my mom, who lives in NJ, asking if I’d heard about “this new yogurt place in Park Slope.” It turns out that Jenny’s parents live in the same development as my parents.
FIPS wasn’t the only site that had good things to say about the yogurt at Culture. Fantastic reviews came pouring in, praising not only the yogurt but the fact that they were using only fresh milk and cultures to make it. Jenny and Gino were not prepared for the almost instant success they found.
I stopped by Culture to meet with Jenny and Gino, and to find out how Culture came to be.
Jenny, Gino, can you tell us about the opening of the shop? Sounds like the neighborhood was in a frenzy for your yogurt right from the start.
Gino: We didn’t realize what was going on. The first few days folks would show up, and we just didn’t know where they were from. We had my brother and family manning the store during our first few days. We didn’t have enough employees because we really didn’t think anybody was going to come in. And it was interesting to hear why people were coming in. After a certain point, they were like, “Don’t you know somebody just blogged about you?”
And it’s weird, you never, when you’re playing around on your computer at home, see that kind of reaction. From your computer, from the Internet, to somebody standing there. And that was for me, probably the most interesting thing. It still amazes me. You know, that people are talking about you. About something you built. And I think that, at least for me, was what this business was all about. Starting something from nothing. I think if you talk to a lot of business owners they’d probably say the same thing. This was an idea, that’s now suddenly so much more than that!
Jenny: And I don’t think we anticipated the volume.
Gino: We did not.
Jenny: So that was a learning curve for us. You know, we just…had to ramp up production, and hire. We needed more people than we thought we would. We initially thought we would need, like, one extra person, to help in the kitchen, to help make yogurt, but it ended up we needed a lot more people.
How did you end up in Brooklyn?
Gino: Jenny had the opportunity to go in one of two different ways. During August of 2004 she was one of the last 25 finalists of Gordon’s Ramsay’s… what was that?
Jenny: “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Gino: It was the first season. They flew 25 of the candidates out to L.A. Jenny was working for a hedge fund at the time, and I was going on an exchange program to Barcelona for business school. And she was like, “I’m just gonna quit the hedge fund, and if it works out with ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and I get on the show then I’ll go there, otherwise I’ll meet up with you in Barcelona.”
It didn’t work out with the show and so she lived with me in Barcelona until the beginning of 2005, and afterwards we came back and I finished up business school, got my MBA. When we came back we started living on the Upper East Side, and we lived there for a few years, right? And after that we were tired of parking the car on the alternate side of the street every other day, and the apartment was cramped, and it was on the sixth floor of a six floor walk up, and we had no A/C… it was not the kind of place we wanted to be living in. Coming out to Brooklyn, we didn’t want to be too far away from the island, because we still had jobs…
Jenny: Gino was actually born in Brooklyn.
Gino: And so we found ourselves moving into DUMBO, and that’s where we live now.
Jenny: I was still in finance. I was in finance for a long time, for about 10 years. And then I went to culinary school. I graduated a year ago.
Gino: For the last few years we went through a bunch of different thoughts about what we were going to do when we grew up, you know? And Jenny’s been trying to figure it out. And I didn’t really like our reliance on finance. We thought there was a way for us to do something else, and to do it on our own, because we just figured, there’s nothing really better than doing it on your own. It’s more satisfying to do it on your own.
We were trying to think of something we could do as entrepreneurs, which is something we’ve always wanted to do. And so we just started tinkering around after we came to New York. We found ourselves — and Jenny, interrupt me if you think otherwise — we found ourselves on Sundays just not being satisfied with, I don’t know, a watching football kind of day. We kind of needed to do something else. It felt like there was a lot of time wasted, just not doing things…we wanted something more satisfying. So we had to figure something out. We played around with ideas of websites, or clothing, all kinds of stuff.
The one who had the skill set here when it comes to food is Jenny. Because she did go to pastry school, and she’s a chef! When Jenny went to pastry school, it became pretty obvious that we wanted to do something with food.
Jenny: I always wanted to open a food business. I went to pastry school, and we had the intention that we would start something, and we went through a whole bunch of ideas, while the whole time Gino was making yogurt at home and I was making toppings for the yogurt, and we were making our yogurt into frozen yogurt. And we’d be eating our yogurt and going, “What should we do?” Until one day we were like, wait a minute, we’re making this great yogurt every day, this is what we’re going to do!
How did you decide where to open? How did you choose this spot?
Gino: Finding the space was very challenging. Not because…well, finding a space in New York City is always very difficult, one that really works for you. But then once you get it… We ran upon a series of really fortunate things, one of which is the fact that the back of this place has a full room, which gives us all of the space in the back that we need for our kitchen. The next is that we’re across the street from the park. And what this place was a dress shop, a fashion store for a while. Jenny found that it was a pizzeria for a time too, which enabled us to go back and make this place a restaurant again. That was particularly interesting. But obviously the biggest thing, I can tell you, by far the hardest thing, was doing the work ourselves.
Jenny: Yeah. We did as much of the work on the space ourselves as we could by law. We were very hands-on.
Gino: Exactly. This place looked…
Jenny: A lot different.
Gino: It took probably five months to make it look exactly the way we wanted it to. It’s challenging to draw a place up, to figure out how doors should move, and where sinks should be, where things should go, and just the overall flow of things! I mean, we’re not architects, we don’t have that background. It’s one of those things we found out – that when you own a business, you pretty much have to have a little bit of knowledge in virtually everything. That’s been fun. That’s fun for me. You expose yourself to so much more, when you’re the one who’s got to do it. When you work at a desk job, your desk job is your boss telling you what to do on a daily basis. Here no one tells you what to do. The only ones who tell us what to do are our customers. And they’re very vocal about it!
Where do you get your milk?
Jenny: We use an organic whole milk, and we use an rBST-free milk [rBST stands for recombinant bovine somatotropin, which is an artificial growth hormone]. The rBST-free milk is from Farmland, because they test their milk. The organic whole milk is from an Amish dairy upstate.
Gino: It’s pretty important for us to have reliability in terms of our orders, and so we had to go with a company that would test and could deliver. And we think they provide exactly that. And with frozen yogurt — a frozen yogurt place would most likely not use regular fresh yogurt like we do.
Jenny: Yeah. We’re using our fresh yogurt to make the frozen yogurt, and we’re just making our fresh yogurt out of the fresh milk and cultures. And we wanted to use rBST-free milk.
Where do you get your cultures?
Jenny: We…don’t want to say! It’s in the Midwest. [laughs] It’s in America.
When my friends made yogurt at home in their slow cooker, they bought active culture yogurt from the supermarket to get it started.
Gino: We did that.
Jenny: We did that at first [in our oven], but then we wanted to get it more…we wanted a more consistent product.
Gino: We went through a lot of different things, in terms of the process, to get the yogurt to where we wanted it to be. A lot of other companies add chemicals and additives to the yogurt, to make it look and taste a certain way. We don’t do that. All we’re working with is milk and cultures, so it’s a little bit more more work for us, but it’s fresh and completely unadulterated.
Jenny: Even if they’re not adding chemicals to stabilize their yogurt, a lot of yogurt companies use powdered ingredients, which we don’t use.
Gino: They have powdered creams, they have pectin, sugars, they also have rennet. We don’t add any rennet.
Jenny: We just keep it pure. All of our frozen yogurt is made from our Greek-style yogurt, and we don’t use any powders, we add real things to the yogurt, then blend it, freeze it, and we get frozen yogurt!
Gino: One thing we should probably talk about is the toppings. We have a basic topping menu that is probably pretty similar to a lot of other places, although we make most of our ‘basic’ toppings in-house. Our granola is house-made, we have cookies…
Jenny: Oatmeal raisin cookies…
Gino: We also make a crumble topping.
Jenny: And the chocolate sauce is made here. Almost everything is made here. We do our own seasonal toppings too. Right now it’s strawberry rhubarb and the apricot ginger, and we get the seasonal fruit locally.
Gino: Right. And then obviously Jenny’s put together a bunch of toppings that we think taste good on our fresh yogurt. We put them together primarily to entice folks to try them fresh. And that has happened, but it hasn’t happened to the extent that it’s 100% toppings with 100% of our fresh yogurt.
Jenny: Mostly it’s been a really big hit on the frozen.
Gino: What I’m starting to learn is that when people go out for dessert, they want a healthy dessert and they want to know that it’s fresh. And here at Culture you can kind of choose your own destiny. You can make it as healthy as you want, or you can put in as much sugar as you want. You can take a fresh yogurt and have no sugar whatsoever, and put a topping on it, or you can go completely nuts, get frozen yogurt, toppings and have a real dessert. And our frozen yogurt is probably just as dessert-y as anything you’d find in any bakery, cupcake shop, or any other place!
Jenny: But it’s not ice cream, it’s yogurt.
Gino: And it’s still a probiotic culture. Jenny’s diligent about being creative, in terms of what she’s gonna offer. And we’re really excited about offering our own seasonal fruit toppings.
J: Yeah. You won’t be seeing the same fruits in the winter. We’re trying to be local, when possible, and if possible.
Has the frozen yogurt overshadowed the fresh yogurt?
Gino: Ha. Yes. I knew that was going to happen! I mean, it’s fine. I think we’ve found that some people who are in here fairly regularly tend to start with frozen and progress to fresh yogurt. Especially when you can show them that there are combinations that make the fresh yogurt taste just as good, and to maybe get a little more conscious about the sugar. There’s not a lot of sugar, compared to everybody else, but if someone says, “I’ve eaten this for dessert the last 10 days in a row, what else can I do?” You know we have fresh yogurt, and fresh yogurt, especially with honey…
Jenny: Or dark chocolate, and raspberries…
Gino: Yeah, that’s good for dessert, for me. Our yogurt’s a medium for anything you put on top of it.
Have you thought about what you’re going to do after the summer is over?
Gino: The reality of this business is that it’s highly correlated with the weather. We’re going to try to find someone who will put us on their shelves, and that will keep us busy in the wintertime.
Jenny: And maybe we’ll do some yogurt-based baked goods. Actually, yes, we will be doing yogurt-based baked goods. Like some yogurt muffins…
And we’ll serve hot chocolate and things with our yogurt and pastries. It is probably good to mention that — you can pretty much substitute whey or yogurt for any liquid in a recipe and really make it healthier.
In many ways Brooklyn has been an incubator for food artisans. Do you feel like part of that community? Have you reached out to anyone?
Jenny: We reached out to people for the yogurt-making process. It was actually a farm, in Chatham, NY, that makes a sheep milk yogurt – Old Chatham Sheepherding Farm. They’re really good. They do a great job.
Gino: We’re both from finance, which is not necessarily the nicest of worlds, and we’ve found that a lot of people in this community, Park Slope in general but also in the food community, are very nice, and really open to offering their experience to you. And it’s something that’s really refreshing, to me, coming from a world that’s not necessarily like that.
Jenny: And all the local businesses have been really helpful, as far as being really welcoming. Reaching out, getting to know us. Very neighborly, it almost has a Main Street, U.S.A. feel, but you’re in Brooklyn.
Culture is located at 331 5th Ave in Brooklyn.