Of Flora and Family

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making yogurt with kidsSpokane entrepreneur turns a small-batch yogurt hobby into a cultured business

STORY AND PHOTOS BY ADRIANA JANOVICH

Late morning sunlight illuminates a double row of quart-sized Mason jars on a countertop in a neighborhood bakeshop. Karyna Hamilton spoons a creamy mixture into the bottom of each of the glass containers, one by one, soon to be topped off by milk still warm from the pasteurizer. As she works, her two tow-headed daughters sit at a nearby table, giggling as they enjoy a pre-lunchtime snack: thick and creamy Bulgarian yogurt made by their mom.

On Sundays and Mondays, Batch Bakeshop in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood is closed, so that’s when Karyna comes to work — sterilizing jars, pasteurizing milk, and making her small-batch, heirloom yogurt. The borrowed bakery kitchen doubles as her production facility.

“Oftentimes, my kids are here with me, doing dishes and breaking cake plates and pouring milk into the pasteurizer,” she says. “You ask my 5-year-old what she wants to be when she grows up and, without fail, she says a yogurt-maker.”

Karyna, 33, started Flora Yogurt Co. in early 2015. Since then, her yogurt has been on the menu at a handful of Spokane restaurants that focus on seasonal and local foods, as well as in Main Market Co-op, a retail food co-op downtown, and Rocket Market, a specialty neighborhood grocer in Spokane’s South Hill.

“You ask my 5-year-old what she wants to be when she grows up, and without fail, she says a yogurt-maker.”

As Flora’s proprietor and sole yogurt-maker, Karyna hopes to grow the business while maintaining flexible hours that allow her to care for her children: Aida, 5, and Maren, 3.

“When I started, my goal was just to piece enough things together to be home with my kids and give them the life they deserved, and I’ve achieved that,” she says. “With the humbling interest and support for what I do, it’s now, ‘How are we going to grow? What’s the next five-year plan?’ Everything that was in my original five-year plan really happened in the first six months.”

But, without the borrowed Batch Bakeshop space and the help of a Kickstarter campaign that funded her commercial-grade pasteurizer, Karyna might not have been able to start the business.

She started making yogurt as a hobby when she was pregnant with her second child and separated from her husband. She was a member of a milk co-op, and her small family simply couldn’t drink enough milk to keep up. So she began experimenting with cheese- making, particularly mozzarella and ricotta.

That led to experimenting with yogurt-making. Soon, she was making more than her family could eat, so she began sharing it with other family members and friends, who wanted more and were willing to pay.

At that time, Karyna was managing a local farmers market. This past season, she managed two: West Central Marketplace in Batch Bakeshop’s neighborhood and Thursday Market in the South Perry District, one of Spokane’s most popular farmers markets. The jobs are part time and seasonal, and while Karyna says she loves working with local vendors and food producers, it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. She needed a way to support her girls, and flexibility was key.

“Yogurt-making is super simple. But you have to be in tune with your environment. They are living cultures.”

By 2014, Karyna was making about 60 quarts of yogurt per month for family and friends and considering turning the hobby into a small-batch business. But she was daunted by the costs.

Enter Batch Bakeshop owner Mika Maloney, also 33, a vendor and former board member at Thursday Market who offered to lend Karyna commercial kitchen space, once Mika’s own small business opened.

“I was given the opportunity to start Batch using another business’s kitchen, and I did that for three years plus,” Mika says. “I couldn’t and wouldn’t have started this if I didn’t have that. So this is my paying it forward. I’m happy to share this space with Karyna.”

Mika began her bakery in 2011, using the kitchen at two adjoining downtown businesses — Neato Burrito and Baby Bar — between the unforgiving hours of 3 a.m. and 9 a.m. But as her wholesale, wedding, and event catering business grew, she needed more time and space to keep up. A successful $15,000 Kickstarter campaign helped Mika move into her cozy corner bakery in September 2014. Today, she uses Flora’s buttermilk in biscuits and scones and plans to sell a parfait with her granola and Karyna’s yogurt.

“She seriously is like my fairy godmother,” Karyna says. “Access to a commercial kitchen is the biggest barrier to local food production because of expense and regulations. I’m lucky that I have a dear friend who offered it to me.”

Mika also encouraged Karyna to launch a Kickstarter campaign of her own. Karyna raised $13,000 in spring 2014 to help cover the cost of her 10-gallon pasteurizer, custom-built in Sunnyside, Washington. By the end of that year, Karyna was wading through paperwork and the permitting process with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Balancing the current demand for local, real food with very strict regulations that are not built for small operations has been a challenge,” she says. “I have the same regulations as Darigold Farms” — the farmer-owned dairy co-operative that represents some 500 family farms in the Pacific Northwest — “and I’m just one person.”

In her first year, Karyna produced 650 gallons of yogurt — more than 10 times the amount she started out making for family and friends. Her top-seller is filmjölk, a traditional, drinkable yogurt from Sweden. It is slow-fermented at room temperature for 24 hours.

“It’s really bright and sweet and kind of citrusy,” Karyna says, describing the texture “like a thick buttermilk.” Her Mediterranean yogurt — “tart, thick, really creamy” — is her second most popular, followed by her thick, rich, and mild Bulgarian and viili, a stretchy, mild, ropy yogurt from Finland. She also makes buttermilk and plans to offer crème fraîche, as well as whipped Bulgarian yogurt sweetened with local, raw honey.

Besides the yogurt cultures — and honey for the whipped Bulgarian — the only ingredient in her yogurts is the milk. For all of her products, Karyna uses organic milk from Pure Éire, a grass-only dairy founded in 2009 in Othello, Washington.

“Yogurt-making is super simple,” she says. “But you have to be in tune with your environment. It’s something that requires love and attention. It’s not lab-derived cultures. The cultures have truly been cared for. They are living cultures.”

Karyna encourages home cooks to try making their own. “If you want to buy my yogurt, get a starter, and make your own, do it,” she says. “The more people who make their own food, the more they support other people who make their own food.”

Karyna’s food philosophy was shaped by her father, “this old hippie who was way up on the slow-food movement before it was cool.” Now, he helps with babysitting. But when Karyna was growing up, he maintained fruit and nut trees, made food from scratch, and eschewed processed and fast foods. Karyna does the same today, growing grapes, ground cherries, horseradish, quinoa, oats, beans, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, cantaloupe, onions, peas, and amaranth in her own garden.

“When I was super broke, that’s what we depended on,” says Karyna, who is also an avid canner. That’s one of the reasons she packages her yogurt in glass canning jars: She hopes customers will reuse — or at least recycle — them.

“You feed the life you want, and that’s what you end up with,” Karyna says. “My hope is to downsize to just one part-time job and yogurt.”

In the meantime? “I’m really proud of what I do,” she says. “I’m a single mother of two kids, and I own my own business.”

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