72: Lifeway Food’s CEO Julie Smolyansky Talks About the Technology and Innovation Behind Probiotics
I heard a fantastic story recently about a company called Lifeway Food’s. The company started in the basement of a family home selling a 150-year-old Eastern European cheese delicacy to Chicago area Russian immigrants. Some years later and following the untimely death of the founder, his 27-year-old daughter, Julie, took over the business and a dramatic reinvention began. Now celebrating 30 years this month, Lifeway has become known as being one of the first companies to bring the probiotic craze to your grocery store aisle. Their popularity has made them a 150 million dollar company traded on NASDAQ.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your role at Lifeway Foods?
My name is Julie Smolyansky. I’m the President and CEO of Lifeway Foods, which is a 30-year-old company that my parents started out of their basement. We were refugees from the former Soviet Union in 1976. We settled in Chicago where my mom started a Russian delicatessen to fill the needs of all the new immigrants that were coming. My father was a mechanical engineer and found a job in Chicago and helped my mother on the side.
They got inspired after buying some bottles of kefir in Germany. It was a product they missed that wasn’t in the U.S. They became incorporated six months later and became Lifeway Foods. When they started the business the collapse of the Soviet Union was happening. Reagan and Gorbachev were meeting and there was a lot of media attention for this crazy immigrant who had this crazy dream to bring this unknown product to the United States. He got a lot of media attention. Reagan even took a case to Gorbachev during the peace talks as an ice breaker and to show what the immigrants were doing in the United States.
He took the company public in 1988. In 2002 he passed away and my brother and I were thrown into the positions of running the business. That was 14 years ago and here we are.
Didn’t you get some criticism for becoming the CEO of the company at 27 years old?
I was 27 and my brother was 23. The day my Dad died his best friend, not five feet away from me, said “there’s no way a 27-year-old girl can run the company. In the morning when the market opens sell your stock because this company is done.” There were a lot of people who did not believe we would be able to take over successfully.
Was that criticism part of that big drive as well? To prove everyone wrong and make your Dad proud.
Yes. That survival skill I’ve picked up and used probably my whole life. I’ve always lived with several sets of challenges and obstacles and the way I have dealt with many of the biggest challenges in my life have been to throw myself into a project and to feel like I’m contributing something. I definitely used my work as sort of escapism from the pain and grief I felt in losing my best friend, my father.
Lifeway is known for being one of the first to bring the probiotic craze to our grocery store aisle. For anyone who isn’t aware can you explain what it is and the health benefits?
Kifir is in the probiotic category space. It’s cultured dairy fermented milk. Probiotics in general, are bacteria that help contribute to your good feeling and wellness in your body. We’re just starting to understand all of the benefits that probiotics and cultured milk plays in our health and wellness.
How has technology helped you progress your business? Do you promote a culture of innovation as well?
Innovation is really important to us. I feel like we are the technology within the food space. Probiotics and knowing what they are doing and the science around it is really what’s driving it. We are relying on the scientists and the medial field and nutritionists to use the technology to study what our products can do and how it can impact our body.
Protein kifer is described as your latest kifer innovation. Can you tell the listeners a little about that and where that idea came from and who it is aimed at?
When I think about innovation I often think about what do I want? What kinds of foods do I want? What are things that will fit into my lifestyle? So protein kifer really emerged out of this demand or need for higher protein because protein helps create satiation. We’re fuller longer if we have more protein. We desire less carbohydrate rich foods and the unhealthy things we tend to grab when we’re hungry between meals.
What’s next for you and Lifeway Foods? Is there anything you can share with us?
We’ve been very busy in our innovation labs. We’re working on a lot of fun new products that will be launching in the next few months. Watch for a lot of new product innovations happening.
For anyone who would like more information on kifer, probiotics and Lifeway Foods what is the best way of getting a hold of you guys?
We’re on Twitter @Lifeway_kefir. We’re on Facebook, we’re on Instagram and we’re on Snapchat. You can email us and you can go on our website www.lifewaykefir.com.