Julie Smolyansky told Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty that her parents fell to their knees and wept when they saw their first American supermarket, arriving in the Chicago area from Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1976. At the time, they had a total of $116 to their name.
Nine years later, in a West German supermarket this time, Julie’s parents discovered the kefir, a tangy, yogurt-like drink popular in the Soviet Union, and began their quest for a food empire.
“They’d bought a couple of bottles of kefir, ” Smolyansky, 39, the CEO of Lifeway Foods, told RFE/RL. “And my dad said, ‘Well, America has everything, but it doesn’t have kefir.’ And my mom said, ‘Well, you’re an engineer. Why don’t you make the product, build a factory, and I will distribute?'”
Over the past 30 years, the Smolyanskys have built a business empire around the kefir.
Julie’s father, Michael Smolyansky, started the company in 1986, out of his basement. Today, Lifeway owns 95 percent of the U.S. kefir market, which they have transformed from an esoteric, health-food product to a mainstream product.
“Initially, it was created for [Eastern European] immigrants that were coming to the States, ” Smolyansky told RFE/RL. “And then [my father] found this niche because the health-food industry was blowing up and growing dramatically. … And so I think then he saw this opportunity to go more mass market and to grow with the natural-food sector. And then, of course, natural food became mass market.”
Lifeway states its gross sales in 2014 totaled $130.2 million, up 20 percent from the previous year. On the same year, the company launched a nationwide print and television ad campaign in the U.S., with a new factory opening this month in Wisconsin, which Smolyansky expects to raise production fivefold.
Smolyansky believes her company has “the capacity to get to $500 million” in annual sales “sometime soon.”