Made in New England Series: Meet Eric Bonin of Pillars Yogurt
For New England native Eric Bonin, the idea to start his company Pillars Yogurt literally fell into his lap —when a container of yogurt exploded all over his dress pants in the car. Several years and many formulas later, Pillars now offers a variety of drinkable, non-GMO Greek yogurt full of both pre and probiotics (without any added sugar). We got to chat with founder Eric to discuss his dedication to convenience and health, how he deals with the highs and lows of entrepreneurial life and his expansion plans.
R.K.: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
E.B.: I’ve been very active in a healthy diet and lifestyle for a while, so that’s always been important to me. I was originally working on a healthy frozen Greek yogurt way back when, so that was my entry into trying to create something like this. I graduated Bryant College in 2008, right around when Greek yogurt was becoming a dietary staple. I ended up meeting with a company making cups of Greek yogurt, and they offered me a job, which helped me gain experience—from visiting farms to sourcing milk.
Towards the end of my time there, I thought about what I could do on my own and I wanted to create something innovative with not a lot of added sugar. I was driving to a meeting and reached for the spoon and spilled the yogurt all over my dress pants, and had an “a-ha” moment that I could make this more convenient. The vision for the product really started on that drive. I thought about what the nutritional targets were, combined with the convenience factor of eliminating the spoon, and it all came together from there. It was a two and a half year process to develop the product—from playing around in the kitchen to creating a formula for a recipe to packaging and branding!
The name came to me in the same sort of way, the following week in the car again. I had the vision of the Pillars and was thinking about Greece. The idea is support for a healthy diet and support for a healthy life, while playing off the idea of a Greek yogurt. I’ve always been a fan of architecture, so that’s where the Pillars came from. If you look at the “l’s” on the bottle, they symbolize the pillars in Greece.
R.K.: How do you source your ingredients?
E.B.: That’s a big part of it! The sourcing was really important for me, and I wanted to have this product a certain way—natural and simple and good. It’s tough to find ingredients that check all those boxes. It was a long process of making calls and visiting people all over the country to find certain components—like milk supply—to find ingredients that were non-GMO and natural.
For instance, we have a prebiotic fiber that stimulates your stomach to better absorb the cultures in the yogurt. We’re the only drinkable yogurt on the market that has no added sugar and has both pre and probiotics. I wanted to create the best and healthiest product in the market in this space!
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any particular challenges along the way?
E.B.: They come up every day! A lot of it is that there is no blueprint for how you create a food product and bring it to market. It’s a lot of trial by fire and figuring it out as you go. One particular challenge stands out for me. I had the formula for the recipe, and we had to do 50 to 100 trial runs of the product, trying to figure out how we could scale it. The final time we thought we had it all figured out, I drove a truck up to upstate New York for a production run, finally finished 48 hours later, and on my drive home I opened one of the bottles and it was all lumpy and off, not at all what it was supposed to be. We were supposed to have product on the shelf the next week! Everyone wanted to quit, but I pushed our team to forge through and do it all over again. Thank God we finally figured it out and made the deadline!
R.K.: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
E.B.: I think that the most direct benefit is that we pushed the local aspect a lot. I grew up here, so my whole circle has been a great support system. The Northeast can be tough, but we’ve done really well here. People in New England love the New England story. We have very loyal customers that the local aspect resonates with.
R.K.: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
E.B.: I would like to see more stuff like what WELL Insiders is doing! A lot of innovation comes out of the West Coast, but it’d be nice to see more incubators for food startups here. More general awareness, which stems from education! People just need to give it a voice. Also, it’d be great to develop more of a community among the startup world, since we’re all facing the same challenges and opportunities. I’d be great to pull these people together, since we’re all in this journey together!
R.K.: What other local food and wellness brands are you a fan of?
E.B.: Recently, I read an article about Spindrift and they’ve done an awesome job innovating a category. We also use organic, natural flavors like them and they’ve done a really good job disrupting that category. They do good things and they do them in the right way. It’s great to see Boston is becoming a hub for that! We’ve done some co-marketing with Nutty Life, a cool fun startup based here in Boston. A friend I went to high school with started CEO Clean Energy Organics, a wonderful organic energy drink.
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
E.B.: There really hasn’t been just one, and a lot of it has been a solo road. I want to find a person who is a little more involved and consistently there as a long-term mentor.
R.K.: Do you have a favorite quote or business mantra?
E.B.: The entrepreneurial path is one with infinite highs and lows, and they come right after each other with no real rhyme or reason. I’ve really tried to get myself to a place where I stay in the middle, even-keeled as much as I can. You’re always a phone call away from one of those highs or one of those lows. A lot of it’s been about finding balance. Appreciate the wins, but don’t get too high on them and understand the lessons from the lows. I often go back to the quote, “Just go figure it out,” because there’s not a rulebook for this.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
E.B.: Within a year, I’d like to have Pillars on shelves nationally! Within two years, I really hope we’re a household name and very well-known. When people think of healthy foods, I want them to think of us. Our customers are everyone from babies and toddlers to people with diabetes and healthy moms. It’s a product that fits for all these people, since it was designed for health and convenience.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own wellness or food business?
E.B.: You just gotta go for it! The best advice is to think about the idea you have in two ways—from the sense of solving a need and is there a viable business there. At the end of the day, just take the chance! You don’t want to have a regret down the road.
R.K.: Here at The WELL Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
E.B.: At the end of the day, we go by the Golden Rule—treating other people how you want to be treated. I try to develop products for business in the same way. Trying to do good things and help people, and that’s what we’re doing with this product. We had an opportunity over the holidays to donate yogurt, and we went out to a bunch of different charities and got to interact with all these people. To see their reaction was a really great opportunity for the whole team!
Want more Made in New England? Check out our full series coverage.