Stephen Kaufman swirled some mixed berry Go-Gurt around in his mouth, the way a wine connoisseur might a vintage Cabernet.
“Tastes a little artificial,” he concluded. “But it's very creamy. It's made to be eaten this way, you just kind of suck it out of the top. Very nice texture.”
He should know—he’s the one who invented it. Back when he was a food scientist at General Mills in the late '80s, Kaufman—who shares my surname and my father’s full name, though we’re not related and the two men have never met—and his colleague Jim McGuire created the original idea and recipe for Go-Gurt. So when I met with him in St. Paul a few weeks ago, of course I had to offer him a tube.
(When he tore off the top, the tab didn’t rip all the way—the classic school lunchroom dilemma. But maybe it’s actually better when the top is left hanging on, he suggested, “so you're not taking this little tab and throwing it off into the environment.”)
That creamy texture he pointed out? It wasn’t what he and McGuire were initially going for. Back in the ‘80s, the pair was tossing around new products to pitch to the General Mills marketing team. “One of us had the idea, why don't we put the yogurt in a Mr. Freeze [ice pop] tube? Just a different container,” Kaufman said.
With his food science training, he started trying to concoct a firmer yogurt. He and McGuire didn’t want runny yogurt in a floppy tube; they wanted the tube to stand straight up, like an ice pop. But this proved harder than expected, so Kaufman pivoted from his original plan and tinkered with the yogurt-making process itself, until he created a new ultra-creamy, ultra-slurpable yogurt recipe.
Initial market-research tests came back lukewarm. Marketing eventually approved the idea, but the engineering department hated it, Kaufman recalled, because they’d invested so much time and money into perfecting yogurt in cups and thought tubular pouches would be impossible.
“As the meetings went on, they got more and more dug in against it,” he said. “And at the same time, because I'm a stubborn German, of course, I was like, ‘No, I think we can figure this out.’”
That’s when it hit him: Hotels provide shampoo and other toiletries in pouches. Why couldn’t a personal-care product machine make containers for yogurt, too?
Kaufman went rogue. He found a machine he could rent and enlisted McGuire’s help to whip up 500 pounds of his yogurt recipe, haul it over in the back of his pickup, and make a bunch of prototypes. At the next meeting, it was time for his big move.
“Engineering is just like, ‘Impossible! Can't do! Gotta kill it!’” Kaufman said. “They’ve got their stake, ready to drive it into the vampire's heart.” So he walked over to the cooler in the conference room, took out the box of tubes he’d made—and dumped them out in front of everyone. Little pouches of yogurt scattered across the table, flying into people’s laps, flopping onto the floor.
“I go, ‘See! You can put yogurt in pouches!’” he said. “It was dramatic, but that was my thing at that point. So then Engineering was cursed with knowledge that there was a machine that could make these things.”
Despite that, Go-Gurt was put on hold because it still didn’t have the preliminary sales numbers General Mills required to launch new products, Kaufman said. He left the company in 1992, so he doesn’t know what other changes took place before Go-Gurt launched in 1998, about a decade after his conference-room stunt. (General Mills declined City Pages' request to speak with current employees who worked there at the time, including McGuire.)
But by all measures, Go-Gurt is now a huge success: Over 1 billion tubes of it were sold in 2017 alone, according to General Mills. Kaufman said he’s surprised at just how popular the portable yogurt turned out to be—that his watchful eye for trends and stubborn dedication to his ideas worked out in the end.
Today, he says, the food innovation trends he’s tracking are nothing like they were in the 1980s. The internet and social media have completely disrupted who controls the messages we receive about food, which means companies can be hugely profitable selling to a small subset of people, instead of trying to make it on the mass market. All you need now is a good idea, not necessarily a giant corporation backing you.
But if he were still in the new-product ideation game in today’s landscape, he said, he’d take a similar creative approach.
“I would start looking for... an area that's growing that needs a little different twist,” he said. “Like with Go-Gurt, it was just a container change. I didn't have to invent yogurt, I just stuck it in a different container.”