Sunday, June 16, 2019

A whole new world (of yogurt)

FILIPINO-Lebanese Elias Naime has a cool, casual demeanor that reminds us of the yogurt we’re familiar with. On the surface, it spells simple—plastic cups or tubs with peel-off tops—but inside is that definite tang that speaks volumes. The 32-year-old entrepreneur is here to revolutionize yogurt consumption in a country that has grown accustomed to an unhealthy diet and lifestyle.

Elias started his career at sea, working on a cruise ship up until several years ago when he and a friend who’s now his business partner, questioned what they wanted in life. “We were thinking of what to do and where to go next and because my mom is Filipino and because I was born and raised here, the Philippines was an easy choice,” he said.

They figured they needed to do something to sustain themselves while actually making a difference in their new home. Hailing from Lebanon where yogurt is a huge part of everyone’s lifestyle, the two decided to create their own in Cebu. “We first came here in 2015 to learn how to set up the company, how to go about the paperwork, how to import the machinery—we really started from scratch,” he shared.

They came up with the name Cheese & Cheese because initially, they wanted to produce Mediterranean white cheeses such as halloumi and cottage cheese alongside yogurt and labneh (strained yogurt). “But we faced a lot of challenges especially in working with the raw materials here like the milk. It’s not always stable, you need a specific amount of proteins and other properties and we couldn’t find it in the market. So now we work with some ingredients sourced locally and add fortifiers which are imported. But the ultimate goal is to be the first in the industry to make yogurt and cheese out of purely local ingredients,” Elias explained.

Fresh, homemade yogurt such as those of Cheese & Cheese, have a superior tang and taste that truly pack a punch.

Aside from eating straight from the tub, Elias suggests getting creative and playing up the savory side of yogurt. Labneh can be the star of a dish or a supporting character—a base for dips, soups and sauces. Yogurt can be used for smoothies or combined with flour to make waffles, crepes and bread, while yogurt balls can go on top of salads and pastas.

“You can even marinate meat in yogurt, makes it more tender. We are working with chefs on how to incorporate our products in Filipino dishes,” Elias said.

Cheese & Cheese currently distributes its plain yogurt, labneh and yogurt balls (available in thyme, sesame, chili flakes and plain variants) online and through Echostore and honestbee. Soon, it will be introducing halloumi (a brined cheese made from a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk) and shanklish (a Lebanese and Syrian blue cheese made from sheep’s or cow’s milk).

Asked how much yogurt they make in a week, Elias says “a ton”—jokingly, we presumed. Clearly, he was serious. “We practically flew in an entire factory for this. We really can produce a ton.”


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