Patama Roj and Jessica Gilmartin, owners of Fraiche (French for fresh), have a friendship that spans 10 years. They were students at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia and began their careers in investment banking in Manhattan before expanding their professional horizons.
New York City native Gilmartin next worked with a restructuring group at Burger King in Miami before moving to Austin, Texas. She advanced to the Bay Area after her husband was transferred about a year and a half ago. Roj, who hails from St. Louis, continued working in New York until her decision to relocate last year.
Hankering to do something together, they assembled a plan of action. Both have traveled Europe and were intrigued with the quality and texture of Greek yogurt, which is noted for its thick creaminess. So they decided to manufacture Greek-style yogurt that was handmade in small batches, where taste was the primary criterion and flavors were not masked.
Yogurt has long been part of the daily regimen of Europeans. In America, yogurt sales have more than doubled in the past 20 years, and soared past $3 billion in 2006, according to market data-gatherer ACNielsen. Still, everything Gilmartin and Roj wanted for their new business didn't exist here.
They sourced their equipment and cultures in Italy and Holland. "We talked to every dairy and yogurt person we could in the U.S.," Gilmartin recalled.
"There were no experts in small-batch yogurt production," Roj added, "and when the equipment finally arrived, we assembled it ourselves."
I recently met with Jessica and Patama at Fraiche. The word "passion" often crept into the conversation. Their eyes widened and their speech gained velocity and intensity when they discussed their business. It was clear how they feel about their work.
"We use as many organic products as possible but we're not complete purists," Roj said. "Flavor and quality are always first."
The women are proponents of community involvement and love getting to know their customers. I was amazed at how many patrons came over to our table just to say hello to the two young women. They have already been asked about possible expansion but haven't decided at this early stage. Both said they prefer a small, hands-on, person-to-person business than a larger enterprise to manage.
Their 50-gallon yogurt maker yields a Greek-style pasteurized product that is smooth and creamy and made from just milk and culture. It is not quite as dense as the packaged Greek yogurt sold by local grocers.
"Ours is not as sour," Gilmartin said. "Usually, the thicker the yogurt, the more sour. We look for that perfect balance of flavor and consistency." It takes about 24 hours to complete a batch.
"We tested many cultures and wanted one that not only tasted great but had all the requisite probiotics," Roj told me. Probiotics are dietary supplements that contain potentially beneficial bacteria. Many believe those benefits include managing lactose intolerance, helping prevent colon cancer, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, and improving the immune system.
Fraiche yogurt is available fresh and frozen. The fresh yogurt is ideal spooned over the house-made granola, with or without fresh fruit topping. Fraiche also serves Blue Bottle Coffee, from an artisanal micro roaster in Oakland; and expressly made pastries, delivered fresh each morning, from a specialty baker in San Francisco. Try the lavender salt biscotti for a mouth-awakening experience.
Their frozen yogurt is equally appealing in natural, chocolate and soy flavors. I was skeptical about the 99 percent fat-free soy but was quickly won over. It had a subtle taste, leaving a slight tang under the back of the tongue. Because I worked in hot humid soybean fields while growing up in the Midwest, anything associated with soy makes me shiver. But not this time, and without any toppings.
The 98 percent fat-free chocolate is flavored with three different chocolates including Valrhona cocoa powder. Whereas many frozen yogurts leave a metallic taste on the palate, Fraiche's frozen yogurt is silky and creamy. The frozen chocolate yogurt smacks of fresh wholesomeness with a hint of decadence.
The natural fat-free frozen yogurt is made from Fraiche yogurt, non-fat Clover organic milk and a morsel of sugar. For added indulgence, of course, there is a tempting array of fresh toppings including fruit, purees, nuts, chocolate, and honeys. At Fraiche, fresh fruit is chopped and sliced throughout the day. Even coconut, almonds and walnuts are toasted on-site. Nothing is poured from an institutional can or scooped from a distributor's carton.
Besides the Blue Bottle coffee, there is a "Grab and Go" cooler brimming with interesting beverages including a refreshing mango coconut water from Brazil, kombucha (a sweetened fermented tea known as "Immortal Health Elixir" in ancient China), and still bottled water from Brazil that helps support rainforest preservation. Other liquid delicacies abound.
Yogurt is sold in three individual sizes. The junior cup is $2.95, regular size is $3.95 ($4.95 with two toppings), while the large cup is $5.25 ($6.75 with three toppings). To take home, hand-packed pints are $6.95, quarts $12.95.
The functional interior seats about 25, and, weather permitting, a couple of additional tables sit streetside. It's an active cheery place to enjoy a coffee and pastry, yogurt and granola or a frozen treat with fresh berries. Just a couple of doors from Gordon Biersch, it's a great place to neutralize the lingering aftertaste of garlic fries.
Differentiating frozen yogurt outlets isn't easy, but Patama Roj and Jessica Gilmartin don't really care about that. They're into their business with a passion and loving every minute of it.
644 Emerson St.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Fri. 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat. 9 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Outdoor dining: street side tables
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