Food of the Gods

Ellenos takes yogurt culture around the world.

Yogurt is undergoing an American renaissance unprecedented since the Great Yoplait Awakening of the early ’80s. This time, as observed by Ad Age, The Atlantic and Fox News, yogurt’s ubiquity is charged by “Greek” yogurt, a trend propagated by brands like Chobani, Greek Gods, FAGE, Dannon and, yes, Yoplait—to the tune of $1.5 billion in total Greek yogurt sales in 2011.

In the Pacific Northwest, Ellenos is not only the Greek yogurt of choice, it’s something of a cult item. Find it on shelves in PCC, QFC and Uwajimaya and at farmers markets across the city. Find it in the corporate refrigerators and cafes of Amazon, Google, Nordstrom, Boeing and Starbucks. On weekends, Ellenos’ Pike Place Market stand is bedeviled by a line that wraps around the block; such days regularly rack up more than $5,000 in sales. Ask a friend, coworker, barista or mailperson what they know about yogurt in Seattle and, like everyone I asked while writing this story, they’ll inevitably exclaim the same thing. “Ellenos! Ellenos is the best!”

But is it different from the aforementioned mega-brands? Superficially, no. The yogurt-making process is the same whether it’s produced by the vat in a factory or by the quart in a home kitchen: Heat milk to below boiling, then cool it down and add a feisty breed of benevolent bacteria known as culture, then let it ferment. After a day it becomes yogurt. A given yogurt’s “Greekness” comes from straining out the liquid produced during fermentation known as whey, which then creates a thicker, sturdier texture. Many Mediterranean countries besides Greece do it.

So what boosted Ellenos to superstar status? No doubt their yogurt is a marvelous foodstuff, thick and smooth, rich and tangy, the dense, luminous white of oyster shell and porcelain, equally suitable for snack or meal or dessert. It’s a simple, whole food, made of nothing but milk and culture. The milk comes from cows in Lynden, just shy of the Canadian border. The culture, full of probiotics and good for digestion, is unique to Ellenos and a closely guarded secret. Ellenos makes their own toppings like marionberry, lemon curd and mango, but they only make one kind of yogurt.

Few fans, if any, know the operation is a family affair. Father and son Constantinos (“Con”) and Alex Apostolopoulos had made yogurt with their Greek-immigrant grandma’s recipe for years in Brisbane, a beach city in their native Australia. In the early 2000s, they were contacted by Bob and Yvonne Klein; Yvonne, a flight attendant, had been snatching up cups of their yogurt every time she flew into Sydney and smuggling them home to rave reviews, while Bob, a marketing guy, was looking for a brand to launch in Seattle. The Kleins believed the Apostolopoulos’ yogurt would make a splash. In 2007 Bob flew to Brisbane to meet the family, and though the visit went well, nothing came of it.

Years of low-level pestering got nowhere until Bob secured the highly visible fruit stand at the corner of the Pike Place Market annex. In 2011 Con flew to Seattle for an afternoon—“One beer, really,” says Bob Klein—and the deal was settled. Con and Alex relocated to Seattle. The name they chose for the American version of their Greek yogurt reflected their unusual swirl of nationalities: ellen, as in Hellenic Greek for Grecian; and os as in Oz, Australian for Australia.

When it first opened at Pike Place in 2013, Ellenos had four employees (the founders), one retail spot (the Market) and one 100-gallon fermentation tank. Today its 70 employees operate three 600-gallon tanks, shipping some 3,000 lbs. of yogurt every few days to stores across the state and a few in Oregon. Headquarters remains the original warehouse/factory/admin space in Georgetown, but the business will soon outgrow the facility.

When I visited on a sunny spring morning, Alex led me on a brief tour, speaking in a thick Australian accent and grinning a grin that never left his face—as if even he can’t fathom why people love his grandma’s yogurt so much. He, Con, Yvonne and Bob were busy but relaxed. They didn’t talk about culture types and they didn’t want my photographer snapping photos of the production area. Proprietary stuff. They did say they age their yogurt for four days, far longer than the usual 12-hour minimum—a clue to their secret?

Before I left I checked out the yogurt counter, open to the public, where you can buy a cup of experimental flavors like chai, mocha and raspberry-ginger not 50 feet away from the vats where the yogurt’s made. A customer walked in and as if on cue I witnessed this telling exchange:

Customer (middle-aged woman, eager, perplexed): “What makes the lemon curd so delicious?!”

Scooper (20-something dude, bemused): “Magic!”

She bought a case. 

Ellenos Real Greek Yogurt
Corner of Pike Place & Pike St., Pike Place Market
5707 Airport Way S., Georgetown