How One Woman Survived A Bad Career Break, Then Launched A Life-Changing Business
The inspiring, never-say-die story of Homa Dashtaki and White Moustache yogurt.
On a quiet commercial street in Red Hook—a fast-gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, that sits on the East River waterfront—there’s a bright green door with blocky windows. It stands out from the sheet-metal garage doors that dominate the street, more welcoming than “watch your fingers.”
Behind the inviting entrance, visitors find a small factory housing the production lines for a homemade ricotta company, a business specializing in handmade granola, an artisan mustard producer, and the factory’s youngest business: White Moustache Yogurt.
Founded in 2011 by Homa Dashtaki and her epically mustachioed father, Goshtasb, the small company specializes in handmade Persian yogurt, taking pasteurized milk from a Hudson Valley dairy and turning it into jars of delightfully thick deliciousness.
“I don’t know what it is about this yogurt, but it’s the first authentic thing I’ve ever done,” says Homa Dashtaki on a recent Thursday morning in the factory, her shortly cropped curls tucked underneath a hairnet. “It’s like bringing in this other part of my identity that I never really gave a lot of credit to—I didn’t know how to celebrate being different.”
Born in Tehran, Dashtaki and her immediate family—her father, mother, and sister—moved to Southern California in 1987, joining a large community of fellow Zoroastrians and landing in a good school district. Dashtaki says she became obsessed with studying and doing well in school because “that’s the only way you’re ever going to make anything of yourself.” The hard work paid off, and in 1997, she landed at UCLA, where she studied comparative literature with a focus on English, German, and Iranian authors.
“I always had this softer side, and I indulged it in undergrad because I was like, ‘I’m going to law school. It’s what I want,'” says Dashtaki, “I wanted to be a lawyer since I was very young because I thought the idea of writing contracts and having everyone’s expectations down on paper was so civilized!”
And, for a time, Dashtaki kept on that path. In 2001, she packed her bags and headed far away from sunny California—to Ithaca, New York—to attend Cornell Law School. Still keen on “indulging” her roots even just a bit, Dashtaki focused on international finance law before landing a job right out of school followed by another great position at Sidley Austin, where she worked until the recession hit in 2009.
“I don’t think I ever would have left,” she says. “But once I got laid off, it was like I couldn’t get myself back into the wheel to look for another job. I was just really burnt out.”
For the next three years, Dashtaki “did random stuff,” living on an avocado farm in the off-season, moving to Tunisia “for a minute,” chain smoking, quitting, teaching yoga.
“I made zero sense,” she says, throwing her hands up.
Around the same time, Dashtaki’s father fell into a funk of his own, mourning the recent death of his brother. To lift his spirits, Dashtaki suggested they throw themselves into small projects and other “random things we were good at.” Eventually, yogurt, the Dashtaki patriarch’s specialty, became the flavor of the week.
“It was just something to get us through,” says Dashtaki matter-of-factly. “We didn’t want to start a business, we just needed therapy.”
Still, they decided to go full steam ahead with the project, taking over the commercial kitchen of a nearby Egyptian restaurant whose owner, a kindred soul, made his own hummus from scratch “like a crazy person.” Between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., Dashtaki and her dad made eight gallons of yogurt, which had to be made in a professional kitchen to be accepted into local farmers’ markets, perfecting the recipe and using straining cloths handmade by Dashtaki’s mother. Compared to Greek yogurt, its more popular and “decadent” cousin, Persian yogurt is strained more slowly and made without adding any creams, starches, or other thickening agents. It’s also slightly tart and savory, though Dashtaki and her father decided to add a layer of fruit to their yogurt to cater to American tastes. Three days later, they headed to the local farmers’ markets to sell the yogurt—and early reviews were positive.
“There was something that felt really, really nice about it,” says Dashtaki. “And the feedback is what motivates you, always. That feedback is what drives you.”
White Moustache—named for her dad’s prodigious whiskers—was such a hit that Dashtaki was accepted as a vendor at the über-exclusive Laguna Beach Farmers’ Market. (Or the “You’re Really Gonna Make It Now” market, as Dashtaki calls it.) With her sister and cousin in tow, Dashtaki sold yogurt at the market every weekend for three months until one weekend when the whole operation fell through.
“I get this call from this woman named Scarlett Treviso,” recalls Dashtaki, taking care to spell out the name. “She basically talked down to me and was like, ‘You need to either shut down or I’m going to come over there in 20 minutes and I’m going to have you arrested and fined $10,000.’”
Dashtaki’s first reaction was that it was a poorly timed prank by a friend from law school, but as it turned out, a shopper had phoned Treviso, at the time a special investigator for the California Department of Food and Agriculture whom The New Yorker has described as “feared.” The shopper expressed concern that Dashtaki might be using raw milk in her product. A representative of the CDFA said in an email that the department treated Dashtaki and White Moustache no differently than any other company, writing: “It is standard practice for CDFA investigators to inform individuals conducting illegal unlicensed manufacturing and sales of dairy products of the requirements of California law, including the potential legal consequences of continued illegal activity. This was true in the case of Ms. Dashtaki, who was informed by both Special Investigator Treviso and Orange County Public Health days prior to the Saturday Laguna Beach Farmer’s Market not to set up sales until she had obtained the required licensing.”
Dashtaki, meanwhile, maintains that White Moustache has never been made with raw milk and was sold with the necessary state permits. To prove it, she spent the next two years regularly visiting the state capitol to advocate for her product and her right to distribute it.
The trips to Sacramento proved to be both enlightening and frustrating. Dashtaki learned that by California law, it is illegal to make a milk-based product in a facility that is different from the site where the milk was pasteurized. By those standards, Dashtaki would have been required to repasteurize her milk, heating it to 145˚F, effectively bankrupting her fledgling business to buy the necessary equipment.
“They don’t want small producers out there because, frankly, they can’t regulate them,” says Dashtaki. “It became very clear that there was no health concern on the table. It was just the process concern and a regulation concern.”
So, in 2011, Dashtaki put out the call—or, technically, The Economist did, with an 800-word story entitled “Red Tape in California.” The exposure proved fruitful, and before long, Dashtaki was courted by a handful of officials willing to work with her, including former Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, though that eventually fell through. Then Dashtaki reconnected with Betsy Devine, an old acquaintance and owner of cheese maker Salvatore Bklyn. If she was up for the move, White Moustache was more than welcome in New York City.
“New York’s approach to me was, ‘This is how we can make it happen,’ says Dashtaki. “They were strict on me too, but the conversation has been completely different.”
In fact, on the day we met, Dashtaki received an email from a New York State Department of Agriculture investigator hoping to purchase a few cases of her yogurt as treats for her coworkers.
“To me, when you get an email from [that department], they’re going to arrest you and fine you $10,000,” jokes Dashtaki. “I wanted to forward that to the guys who shut me down in California and be like, ‘Shame on you.'”
Now, with uncommon but tasty flavors like sour cherry, date, and honey-walnut, the company’s yogurts have been picked up by both gourmet grocery stores and large retailers like Whole Foods. White Moustache has appeared in numerous publications, including Bon Appétit, The Wall Street Journal, and Food & Wine, which dubbed the product “the silk sheets of yogurt.”
Late last year, the positive press encouraged Dashtaki to go further and capitalize on yogurt’s less popular but equally delicious by-product: whey. Realizing that she shouldn’t just throw away the tart neon-yellow liquid, Dashtaki began bottling her whey, heralding its many health benefits, which include being calcium-rich as well as a natural probiotic.
“The problem was that there was no market for it,” says Dashtaki. “The problem was that people didn’t know what it was.”
That’s when Dashtaki, Jen Anderson (her head yogurt maker), and her staff of five—most of whom live in Red Hook and nearby Sunset Park—got creative with the whey. They started flavoring it, first with ginger and eventually with honey and lime, beets, and soon passion fruit, adding little to no sugar in the process. After some troubleshooting—including moving away from selling the whey in overwhelming 1 liter bottles—local publications began taking notice. Early on, the product caught the attention of The New York Times, which mentioned White Moustache’s Thanksgiving Kit, featuring whey perfect for tenderizing a turkey. A few weeks later, celebrated chef Rob Newton, owner of Brooklyn food scene darlings Smith Canteen, Nightingale 9, and Wilma Jean, started making drinks and marinades with Dashtaki’s whey. Six months later, White Moustache’s whey is flying off shelves, with a 1400% increase in sales since August 2014.
“It makes sense to every part of my identity,” says Dashtaki. “And I know that sounds so cliché, and right now kids are inundated with, ‘Oh, be yourself!’ But how does that translate to being successful or how does that translate to feeling fulfilled or building a community? Everyone has it. Every single person has something about themselves that’s very authentic that they dismiss.”
Dashtaki should know: She was once just like that.
No longer content to dismiss or be dismissed, Dashtaki is both excited and daunted by the possibility of outgrowing the space behind the green doors, of placing more demands on a business that is appreciated for its small scale. Sometimes she wishes she could do away with the product labeling and just tell people to “love the product.” And other times, Dashtaki misses her family, who still live on the other side of the country, and continue to serve as the inspiration for everything she’s doing.
Most days, however, she leans toward excited.
“I just wake up every day feeling so privileged to ride this wave for what it is,” she says. “I don’t think twice about it. You just can’t.”
[Photos: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]