When the locavore movement got underway, people told Ron Marks he was crazy to think that the same concepts and quality could be applied to cultured dairy. Well, with about 1000 cases of handmade all natural yogurt sold every week, Marks definitely showed them.

Marks established AtlantaFresh in late 2008, soon after the stock market crash.  Before AtlantaFresh’s inception, Marks worked for Focus on Food, a culinary consultant and marketing firm for fast food restaurants and chains. Performing consumer research at the Norcross location, Marks developed functioning menus and branding strategies for an array of clients.

“The more I worked there, the more left-winged my food politics became” Marks asserts. Frustrated by the conglomerate mentality to produce cheaper, faster, and “less real” food, Marks took the sudden dissolution of the firm as an opportunity to find a way to make food as good as he possibly could again.

Joining the Slow Food and Georgia Organics organizations a few years prior, Marks became acquainted with like-minded individuals, most importantly Russell Johnston of Johnston Family Farms of Newborn, GA.  The relationship seemed “just providence” Marks looks back; now AtlantaFresh is the largest buyer of Johnston’s milk.

Johnston Family Farms provides all-natural grass-fed milk, produced right on the farm. Delivered raw to the AtlantaFresh Creamery (the very same rehabilitated space of Focus on Food firm in Norcross), the skim milk is first pasteurized, using a lower temperature than most commercial dairies choose. After incubating for eight hours, the whey is then removed-and this separation is precisely what separates Greek yogurt from regular yogurt. Marks upcycles this would-be waste, selling the whey to local hog farmers as feed.

Flavor additions of cooked natural fruits are added next, and then the yogurt is distributed into 6 oz, 16 oz, or 32 oz containers and finally labeled and packaged. From farm to adorably designed cup (by local graphic artist Laura Ellis), the entire process takes approximately 36 hours. This freshness is what makes AtlantaFresh yogurt so different and special from other yogurts. It’s not the same heavy thickness as typical Greek yogurts, having a consistency closer to regular yogurt, but still maintaining that smooth creamy taste.

The flavors profile too, all developed by Marks himself, set AtlantaFresh above the rest. Ginger Peach, Black Cherry Port Wine, Wildflower Honey are just some mouth-watering staples.  Marks expressed a sustained excitement to release his newest flavors this spring: Maple Bacon and French Roast Coffee.

Raised in the foothills of the Allegany mountains in Western Pennsylvania, Marks is first generation American to Czech and Hungarian parents. Trained as a butcher and sausage maker in his family-owned general store, Marks has been in the food business his whole life. The strong childhood impressions of the sour creams, milks, and Laban from the small dairy producers on homesteads in the north, fueled Marks desire to fill that missing niche in the southeast.

And filling it he is, AtlantaFresh continues to grow every year, with the Creamery at only 15% capacity. New products like Greek yogurt-based salad dressings and hard frozen packed yogurts are in the works. While the recent discontinuation of the hand-made Mozzerella cheeses may have upset many local chefs and fans, Marks describes the decision as financially, an easy one, giving the Creamery more time and space for the high-selling yogurt products.

Sold at every Whole Foods, several Krogers, markets, coffee shops and the like, AtlantaFresh is making quite the imprint on Atlanta’s local food community. Marks intends to further penetrate the southeast, but all the while asking ethically, “ credibility-wise, how many miles can you go when you lose the original intent of the product?”

The AtlantaFresh Creamery in Norcross recently opened a store-front, so die-hard fans can purchase all the yogurt they want year-round at farmer market prices and possibly have a chance to meet the man behind the yogurt.

And that’s all I have to say about that,                                                                                             Lauren Ladov                                                                                                                                   Atlanta 2012 Food Warrior

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