EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 29, 2010

General Mills to discontinue producing Colombo Yogurt

Family started brand in Andover kitchen 80 years ago

Jonathan Phelps

ANDOVER — Goodbye, Colombo.

Born in Andover some 80 years ago, General Mills will stop production and distribution of Colombo Yogurt in the spring.

Colombo, which claims to be America's first yogurt brand, was started in 1929 by Robert Colombosian's Armenian immigrant

parents, Rose and Sarkis, in the family's home in Andover.

Robert Colombosian, 84, has been a part of the company, now in Methuen, since he was 12.

Yesterday, Colombosian said he was disappointed with the decision by General Mills.

"It is a big part of my life," he said. "It is all of it really."

"The worst thing (General Mills) can do is drop the brand," he said. "It is the oldest yogurt brand in the United States."

Heidi Geller, manager of corporate public relations at General Mills, said yesterday in a statement that the company decided to drop the Colombo brand to concentrate on the growth of Yoplait, also owned by the company.

"The Colombo brand has a rich, celebrated Northeastern heritage; however the yogurt category is being led by national brands like our popular Yoplait Yogurt brand," Geller said. "We are grateful for the partnership and friendship we've shared with the Colombosian family, and we thank them for their support throughout the years."

Colombosian yesterday showed off old packages of Colombo Yogurt from his Andover home and told the story of how it became a popular regional product.

Colombosian's mother would cook the yogurt using the family recipe, while he and his father and his brother John dealt with other aspects of production and distribution. The company later moved from the family home to a factory on Argilla Road in Andover, and Colombosian later took over as president of the company around 1966.

At first, the product would only be bought by certain ethnic groceries, but sales took off in the early 1950s when Reader's Digest popularized yogurt in a series of nutrition articles. Soon the Colombosians were supplying supermarket chains and dairy distributors across New England.

By 1971, the company moved from Andover to Methuen. Before the move, Colombo ranked fourth in the nation behind Yoplait, Dannon and Breyers.

But the growth, along with financial trouble, caused Colombosian to seek a partner or sell the company. He ended up selling the company to Bongrain, a French cheese company in 1977, which in turn sold it to General Mills in 1993.

"I didn't have enough money to keep (the business) in the family. It was growing so fast," Colombosian said. "I decided to sell it so the business could grow."

Howard Cannon, a spokesman for Stop & Shop, said General Mills had said it tracks all the numbers of sales of all its products and saw a reduction in sales of the Colombo brand and "General Mills opted to shut the product line down."

Factory to stay busy

The Methuen factory will continue to operate at the same level producing Yoplait products and no employees will be let go, Geller said.

Within the last month, Stop & Shop has stopped stocking the product, while Market Basket and other chains still offer them. David McLean, operation manger at Demoulas Super Markets Inc., which operates Market Basket, said they were told shipping of the product was scheduled to end on Feb. 12.

Frances Found, 88, who was shopping at the Market Basket in Lawrence, said she has Colombo vanilla yogurt every day with lunch and is disappointed it will be stopped.

"It is a local brand; that is too bad," Found said. "I've been buying it for years, I'll have to buy a few more next time I shop."

Colombosian said he has enjoyed working with the company as a consultant and would like that to continue even without the Colombo brand.

In 2001, General Mills hired Colombosian and his wife, Alice, to star in a series of folksy television and radio advertisements for the brand.

Alice died in 2008 after a long illness.