Saga Dairy and its Viking Icelandic Yogurt began on the stovetop of Phil and Therese Meers’ tiny studio apartment, in the depths of a Boston winter. The newly engaged couple shared a love of athletics, healthy eating, and homespun Icelandic yogurt, but when some of their favorite brands started selling out to large corporations, sacrificing quality and serving sizes while raising prices, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
One pot at a time, while reading Viking sagas and pouring over Viking history books, they learned the techniques of making high-protein, low-sugar yogurt. “We strain the milk longer to get rid of all of the sour whey,” Phil Meers explains, “and that way we don’t need to add as much sugar.”
Most yogurts take about one cup of milk to produce one cup of yogurt. Icelandic yogurt, or skyr, takes about four cups of milk to make one cup of yogurt, giving it a deliciously thick and creamy texture and high protein level. “We strain and strain and strain the yogurt, so all of the protein comes naturally from the milk,” Phil says.
Phil, a rower himself, had several friends on the 2012 Olympics rowing team, and Therese had many friends who were just becoming mothers. “We wanted to make something an athlete, mother, or person trying to stay fit or lose weight could have and feel good about,” Therese says.
Because of its high nutritional value, yogurt was essential to the Vikings, and fueled their greatest adventures. It’s mentioned in several medieval Icelandic stories, including the Grettis Saga and the Egils Saga, and was so important to their stamina on long journeys that they wouldn’t depart on a voyage without it.
The Vikings brought skyr to the Americas more than 1,000 years ago, and it became the first product traded between Europeans and indigenous people in North America, as recounted in The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders.
Committed to maintaining the traditional recipe, Phil and Therese spoke with Viking food scholars and worked with the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin to research and perfect their yogurt.
Finally, they were ready to take the leap and begin production on a larger scale so they could sell to stores. Now, their yogurt is produced on traditional farms in the Chenango River Valley of upstate New York, but sold primarily in the Midwest.
“We found arms wide open when we started talking to retailers in the Midwest,” says Therese. “We were able to bring Viking to life because of stores like Mariano’s and Sunset Foods.” Phil agrees, adding that stores in the Midwest are excited about working with individuals and small companies, and always looking for new ideas. “There’s a really great move toward innovation in Chicago,” he says.
Phil Meers grew up on a farm in the Lake Forest area, where his family has been in the dairy farming business since the 13th century. His grandfather, Henry W. “Brick” Meers, was the chairman and president of Children Memorial Hospital, 1967 general chairman of the Metropolitan Crusade of Mercy, and chairman of the Chicago Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, among other community focused positions.
Phil and Therese are excited about carrying on the family tradition of giving back, and are still involved with the hospital, and also other organizations like Eagle River Runners. “We want to give back not only through a healthy product, but also through community service,” Phil says. The Midwest has been so welcoming to them that Therese says she wants to make sure their company is always committed to the community.
This commitment extends to Boston as well, where their yogurt started. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Phil and Therese brought American and British Olympians together for a fundraising dinner at the Harvard Club, where they raised money for wounded veterans. Recently, Therese was invited to speak at Harvard to a group of 200 women interested in entrepreneurship, where she was able to use her experience to encourage them and educate them on taking the next step.
Viking Icelandic Yogurt is available in more than 130 stores in the greater Chicago area, including Sunset Foods, Haven Market Places, Treasure Island, Mariano’s, and select Schnucks supermarkets in Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin. All five flavors—plain, strawberry, blueberry, vanilla, and cucumber mint—are made with all natural fruit. The Meers’ also keep a strict non-GMO and rBST-free policy. “It’s something we really believe in,” says Therese. “We love the taste, we love the flavor, and we want to get it to the stores and to the people.”
–By Rebecca Holland // Photography by Robin Subar