Working at the speed of business, man. If it takes you in some direction you have to be totally fluid. It’s crazy.” Crazy is an apt description for Chicago Soy Dairy’s short life span. North Central High School and Purdue graduate Ryan Howard built a sterile soy processing plant in the basement of his Chicago home while working for General Mills, intent on delivering fresh soy milk daily to Chicagoland eateries and groceries.
The idea of copying the dairy business model and producing soy milk regionally came to Howard when he was competing in and winning Purdue’s Student Soybean Utilization Contest in 1998 and 1999. He and partner Faye Mulvaney took home cash prizes and patents with soy-based ski wax and soy gelatin. Then Howard realized that all the soy milk on the market was made in Colorado or California from Midwestern beans.
“We thought that if we’re here in the Midwest,” Howard says, “we’re right near the soybeans, we might as well have a local soy dairy.”
Howard’s longtime friend Dan Zeigler was commuting to Chicago from Indianapolis every weekend to work in the basement. The non-stop crass banter between he and Howard leaves one wondering if Beavis and Butthead finally got off the couch to pursue careers in food science.
Forget that dog-eared cookbook — this ain’t your hippie uncle’s soy milk. Once the province of traditional Asian cooking and the Birkenstock set, at least one brand of soy milk is now available in every major grocery chain in America. To be sure, the methods of production have changed to keep up with demand, but companies like Chicago Soy Dairy aim to prove that processed food isn’t necessarily unhealthy food.
Unlike most soy milk companies who contract with dairy facilities for production, Chicago Soy Dairy makes their soy milk from whole ingredients on site. Fifty-pound bags of organic soybeans are soaked, ground and cooked. The beans are then transferred to another chamber to be deodorized; in such quantities, you need more than a few drops of Beano. The okara, or fiber, of the bean is removed, spices are added and the milk is chilled and distributed into containers for sale.
One January night in 2004, Howard was delivering vegan-baked goods to a 24-hour diner in Wrigleyville called Pick-Me-Up when the owner asked him if Chicago Soy Dairy made soy “ice cream.” They had never made ice cream and were still fine tuning their soy milk recipe and machinery, but Howard didn’t hesitate. “Of course we do.”
Howard and Zeigler scrambled to find home ice cream makers in the dead of winter to experiment with.
That weekend, Temptation Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert was born.
Laughing, Zeigler says, “I was mad that he kept selling things that we didn’t have. But it seems to work out every time he’s done it.”
Restaurants and cafes started adding Temptation to their menu so Howard and Zeigler modified a trailer with an RV refrigeration unit to make deliveries around Chicagoland. They moved into a warehouse in the western suburb of Lombard, erecting walls, grading the concrete floor, tiling and installing equipment themselves. Grim Reaper’s 1984 kitsch-metal classic “See You In Hell” rests on a turntable, the needle nestled into a groove preceding the title track, ready to be played each morning.
One year later, Chicago Soy Dairy delivers soy milk and Temptation to 41 groceries and eateries in and around Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. Smiling, Zeigler says, “Good Earth was the first health food store I’d ever seen, really, and it’s still my favorite health food store. When we sold stuff to them I was like, ‘We’ve made it.’”
This euphoria is short-lived though, because the real push is still ahead. Many large conventional foods manufacturers are buying up small natural foods companies to capitalize on the wholesome image and growing market share. Howard has experienced this as a consumer of natural foods and now as a manufacturer. He says food manufacturers “fight by buying, they fight by taking the original message of the company out so that it’s just about natural foods and it’s not about changing the way we eat and the way we live, changing our view of corporate culture.”
Many small food manufacturers and mom and pop health food stores cry foul when faced with the steady encroachment of multinational corporations and national chain stores on their territory. Howard and Zeigler have an interesting perspective: “No whining,” Howard says. “If big companies want to play this game, we’ll play it and beat them at it. Little health food stores complain about Whole Foods coming in; competitive marketplace is the bottom line, and you’ve got to up the ante and find ways to bring the customers in.”
Zeigler quickly provides support: “Outpost in Milwaukee’s done it. Good Earth’s done it.”
They’ve drawn a line in the sand, but do they have a strategy? Cocking his head to the side, Howard says, “We’re going to fight through it and make sure our product kicks everyone else’s ass.”
Temptation Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert is carried by the following Central Indiana natural foods grocers and eateries. S
unspot Natural Market 765-464-1555 500 W. Sagamore Pkwy. (U.S. 52) West Lafayette, Ind.
Nature’s Pharmacy 765-446-2929 3500 S.R. 38 E. Lafayette, Ind.
Good Earth Natural Foods 317-253-3709 6350 Guilford Ave. Indianapolis, Ind.
Georgetown Market 317-293-9525 4375 Georgetown Road Indianapolis, Ind.
Nature’s Market 317-876-3131 2424 Lake Circle Drive Indianapolis, Ind.
Roots Restaurant 812-333-2653 126 1/2 N. Walnut St. Bloomington, Ind.
More information on Chicago Soy Dairy can be found on their Web site, www.welovesoy.com.