Anto Baghdassarian, the founder and CEO of Karoun Dairies, San Fernando, Calif., has built a growing business that produces cheeses and cultured dairy products in different styles for various ethnic markets.

At its plant in Turlock, Calif. (see Dairy Foods, March 2014), the cheesemaker produces feta, hand-braided string cheese, yanni (a cheese for grilling), paneer, Mexican-style cheeses (including queso fresco, queso blanco and cotija), plain yogurt (whole milk, low-fat and nonfat), labne (kefir cheese), sour cream, flavored yogurt drinks and kefir.

The dairy is right on trend. A report from the International Dairy-Deli-Bake Association, Madison, Wis., states “as consumer palates evolve, so does the demand for specialty cheese and robust flavors.”

Anto’s son Rostom explained that the company’s strategy is to diversify products and customers. The cheeses, yogurts and cultured dairy beverages are sold in grocery and club stores. Karoun also manufactures private-label products, and it has a strong foodservice base, especially in yogurt used for smoothies.

Getting started

Baghdassarian’s personal story is one of perseverance. After studying engineering in Denmark, he moved his family from Lebanon to the United States in 1990. One son, Rostom, is the company’s chief operating officer. A son-in-law, Tsolak Khatcherian, is the chief financial officer. Another son has a PhD in physics and his daughter has a degree in pharmacology.

Anto Baghdassarian had no money to buy a plant when he began the company in 1992. He had no name and no advertising. Baghdassarian started by buying 40-pound blocks of cheese from a processor and cutting and wrapping the blocks into retail cuts. He went store-to-store in ethnic neighborhoods. In-store demonstrations and sampling built his reputation. Housewives wanted more cheese on their next shopping trips and storeowners were happy to re-order.

Eventually, Baghdassarian leased time in a Beatrice Foods plant in Turlock. He bought a tanker of milk and hired a cheesemaker to supervise the production to his standards. Baghdassarian stuffed his F-350 van with cheese and drove back to Los Angeles to distribute it. When the plant became available for sale, he snatched it up.

As Karoun Dairies grew, Baghdassarian re-invested profits back into the business. Rostom said his father realized early on that in order to expand and grow every year, Karoun had to keep diversifying its dairy line and customer base. The dairy developed new products and added new retail and foodservice customers. In 2011, the Armenian American Chamber of Commerce awarded Karoun Dairies its Business of the Year award.

Brands and products

As it diversified, Karoun Dairies developed separate brands for its different styles of cheeses and yogurts to serve different ethnic consumers demands. The newest brand is Blue Isle, a premium line of yogurt drinks and yogurt spreads.  Besides the Karoun brand, the company also uses Gopi (for Indian-style dairy products), Arz (Middle Eastern-style), Queso del Valle (Hispanic-style) and Yanni (Greek-style).

Blue Isle Mediterranean yogurt spreads are positioned as an alternative to cream cheese and are sold in five flavors: plain, honey, blueberry, French onion and spicy vegetable. They are OU kosher and Real California Milk certified. The spreads are rich in calcium, low in sodium and contain live and active yogurt and probiotic cultures. The new Blue Isle kefir drinks have 10 live and active cultures and probiotic cultures to support digestive health. The kefirs are low in fat and provide protein, antioxidants and calcium. 

Trade show marketing

To reach its retail and foodservice customers, Karoun exhibits at various trade shows, including the winter and summer Fancy Food shows, the IDDBA Expo, Expo West and the National Restaurant Association show. Another customer segment is food processors, who buy Karoun products to use as ingredients. The company participates at trade shows with the California Milk Advisory Board and shows the Real California Milk seal.

With growth has come the need for more efficient logistics. Last year it opened a distribution center and headquarters office in San Fernando, which offers easy access to Interstate highways. The DC will help the company service accounts in Southern California and states to the east. The additional space will help the company to import or produce additional dairy varieties to meet customer demand.

When Rostom Baghdassarian gave Dairy Foodsa tour of the distribution center, he said “there are standards, high standards and Anto’s standards.” He pointed out design details, such as extra-sturdy racks that others might consider to be over-engineering. But for Anto, who describes himself as “picky,” only the best will do.

He insisted that a safety braking system be installed on the loading docks. He had seen the system at the Anuga show in Germany and thought it would be good for the safety of his employees. The brakes lock the rear wheels of the truck and cannot be released until a warehouse worker verifies that it is safe to pull away.

Although the company has grown, added products, expanded the cheese plant and built a distribution center, one thing that has not changed is the dairy processor’s commitment to the customer. This year, Karoun focused and grew its in-house demo department for in-store product demonstrations.

 “We know our products better than anyone,” Baghdassarian said. And no one knows Karoun better than the founder himself.