About a year ago, a recruiter contacted Gerard Meyer of Princeton to explore his interest in developing a U.S. brand for Tnuva, the largest Israeli food company. Meyer already had experience with Israeli companies — he built the U.S. business of SodaStream, which sells seltzer makers and has an annual revenue of $200 million.
The 90-year-old Tnuva still had much of its yearly $2 billion revenue coming from Israel, and, Meyer said, “they decided they wanted to spread their wings to grow.”
Together, Tnuva and Meyer determined that cottage cheese, which they saw as a neglected category in the U.S. dairy market, should be their focus.
In August 2016 Meyer launched the Tnuva subsidiary, Muuna, to sell Israeli-style, creamy cottage cheese in the United States. Headquartered in Princeton with 10 employees, Muuna’s cottage cheese is made in Minnesota.
Meyer told NJJN that cottage cheese consumption in the United States has more than halved over the last 40 years, while yogurt consumption has exploded. In contrast to the United States, “cottage cheese in Israel is humongous. Israelis eat more cottage cheese per person than anywhere in the world,” he said. One reason for this, he said, is that Israelis know how to make very good, creamy cottage cheese with the same fat content.
Compared to the yogurt market, he said, cottage cheese comes up short. Whereas yogurt has several distinctive brands — such as Dannon, Chobani, and Fage — cottage cheese has less recognizable brands like Breakstone, which is under Kraft Foods and also includes butter and sour cream. Breakstone’s packaging, Meyer added, looks the same as it did 40 years ago.
Also, in the yogurt market, convenience reigns, with single-serve containers and “fruits of all shapes, sizes, and forms. Plain, big tubs are less than 1/10 of the category,” he said.
Meyer, a Harvard Business School graduate, thinks he can turn around the cottage cheese market in the United States. “I think I know why it has declined and how it can increase and improve and do well,” he said.
Market research suggests that almost half of American households do buy cottage cheese at least once a year, and over 90 percent of the people who buy cottage cheese also buy yogurt. Meyer’s conclusion: “Cottage cheese is not exciting enough.”
Meyer also said that the industry has not capitalized on an inherent strength in cottage cheese, that it has more protein than even Greek yogurt. And comparing Muuna’s fruit-flavored cottage cheese snack sizes to their yogurt peers at the same calorie level, Muuna cottage cheese not only has more protein, but also less sugar. Cottage cheese doesn’t need as much sugar to make it taste sweet, Meyer said.
With this in mind, Meyer and Tnuva started to reimagine and rebuild the cottage cheese category. First, it created the Muuna name for its new product, which, Meyer said in an e-mail, “evokes dairy (‘moo’) and evokes delicious (‘mmm’).”
Then it hired Chobani’s designer to create an attractive package. “We made a unique shape and a nice look,” Meyer said. “People buy things with their eyes first.”
They also developed snack-size options with fruit, and their product line now includes six snack sizes — peach, strawberry, mango, blueberry, pineapple, and low-fat plain — as well as 16-ounce containers of low-fat 2 percent and classic 4 percent plain cottage cheese.
The addition of fruit is a distinctly American idea, Meyer said. “Israelis don’t mix fruit with cottage cheese.”
Meyer’s mother is French and his father was German, and his parents’ families escaped from Europe in the late 1930s, ending up in Argentina, where he was born. The Meyers moved to Plainfield when he was two, and he grew up largely in Westfield. He moved to Princeton in 1998 with his wife Sherry, and they are members of The Jewish Center in Princeton.
Although Meyer had visited Israel only once before starting his work for SodaStream, he estimates that he’s been there 50 times in the last dozen years. “It’s nice to be able to get to go to Israel as often as I do, and I get to work with a pretty good cross-section of Israelis; you see it from a different perspective than you would as a tourist,” he said. One thing that has impressed him about Israelis is their ability to compartmentalize — when they are doing business it is as if the current politics of the Middle East do not exist.
Meyer has now worked on what have been essentially two start-ups in cooperation with companies in Israel. He disagreed with the notion that he is a “real entrepreneur” in Israel, saying that title should be reserved for “someone who has no money, no way to get paid, no backers, and is willing to live on the street.” Starting a business takes resilience and persistence, he said, and “Israelis by their nature, know ‘I’m going to find a way.’”