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Ex-Investment Banker Shifts Cultures to Become Greek Yogurt Maker

By Amy Zimmer | February 7, 2012 7:14am
Hamilton Colwell (right) is planning to bring Maia Yogurt into Manhattan stores this spring.
Hamilton Colwell (right) is planning to bring Maia Yogurt into Manhattan stores this spring.
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Facebook/Maia Yogurt

MANHATTAN — When the economy collapsed, Hamilton Colwell, a former JP Morgan investment banker, had an epiphany.

But his vision had nothing to do with banks or financial recovery — it involved yogurt.

"I realized that my calling was not to save financial companies from ruin, but to make a difference in peoples' lives and diets," Colwell, 33, said.

That's when Colwell launched his yogurt company Maia — named for the Greek Goddess of Spring and Rebirth — out of the kitchen of his Upper East Side apartment.

He's now gearing up to stock his Greek-style yogurt, now made in Pennsylvania, in Manhattan's grocery and health food stores by mid-spring.

"My plan is to share this with as many people as possible as quickly as possible," he said.

Colwell started making yogurt after being challenged five years ago by his cousin, who was pregnant at the time and craved it.

"I made it on her request on a dare," Hamilton said. "My roommates were watching football and I was whipping up yogurt in the kitchen."

Colwell's apartment still serves as the company's headquarters. 

Maia was stocked in Manhattan stores when it first launched in July 2010, including in Fairway and the Elixir Juice Bar in Equinox Gyms.

"The product is ideal for after workouts with its protein, probiotics and prebiotics," Colwell said. 

It's unlike traditional Greek yogurt in one way, Colwell said.

"We don't strain off all the whey," he said. "We have the calcium, B-vitamins and all the goodies found in the whey. There's more B-vitamins in a Maia yogurt than in an energy drink."

The company stopped selling here in August, instead focusing on its market in Westchester and New England.

"Logistically it was so difficult to sell in Manhattan," Colwell said. "As a little guy, you really have to fight for every inch and every piece of the process."

Back then, Colwell had one truck and had to wake up at 5 a.m. to get to a warehouse in Connecticut and then fight traffic into the city to make deliveries before noon. He transported the yogurt inside insulated sleeping bags — which he said worked better than refrigeration.

He had to do this all while also developing the company's strategy and marketing.

The company has since grown to include drivers manning 100 trucks, making a Manhattan return more feasible. This month, Maia is expected to produce 50,000 cups of yogurt a month, up from 20,000, Colwell said. 

A marketing plan has also been developed that targets moms — "the queen of the household," Colwell calls them — in order to get it into kids' diets.

"Kids are fired up about being healthy and happy, but they get stuck in a rut of video games and being indoors and terrible eating habits," Colwell said. 

Colwell developed his all-natural recipe, fortified with fiber, after reaching out to scientists and lab technicians at Cornell’s School of Agriculture and Life Sciences to find an ideal balance of vitamins that might be missing in people's diets.

"I think Greek yogurts are just the beginning," he said. "There's so much more yogurt can offer."