Food & Drink

Turning the Page

After losing the Jewish Times, publisher Andrew Buerger moves from print to probiotics.

Less than a year and half ago, Andrew Alter Buerger was the publisher of the weekly Baltimore Jewish Times—toiling away at the helm of a family newspaper business his great grandfather, David Alter, began when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House back in 1919. At its zenith in the late 1990s, this mini-media empire included Jewish publications in six different cities and the local lifestyle magazine, Baltimore Style. All that came to an ignoble end in April of last year after a costly and losing legal battle with the paper’s printer, in combination with long-battered balance sheets, forced Alter Communications to be sold at bankruptcy auction. The owners of Washington Jewish Week bought the nearly century-old institution and now publish the Baltimore Jewish Times. “Basically, they took over on a Friday and I was gone Monday,” Buerger says.

Today, the 48-year-old is in an entirely different field—quite literally. It’s a sunny, late-spring afternoon and the erstwhile publisher is tromping through pastureland near Bird-in-Hand, PA. His family once prospered from the labors of editors and advertising reps, but he’s here to show a reporter the front-line workforce for his latest venture: contented cows.

Amish dairy farms serve as home to the two bovine herds supplying the grass-fed milk (later skimmed) used to make B’more Organic smoothies, a line of health drinks based on an Icelandic form of strained yogurt that Buerger and his wife, Jennifer, began bottling in 2010. Sales have grown four-fold every year since, with the $3.99 pint bottles now available at hundreds of outlets from New York to Virginia, including Whole Foods and Wegmans.

As Buerger gingerly dodges the cow pies dotting the greenery beneath his feet, he reflects back on his former life. “Let’s see, it’s a Wednesday—that was press day,” he says. “We’d be on deadline, proofing copy and checking ads. I don’t miss that.

“I’d rather be out here,” he adds after a pause, squinting into the distance where some 40 piebald cows are languidly munching grass.

Buerger jokes that as a newspaperman much of his work was “avoiding cow patties of a different sort.” But there were some troubling things he couldn’t side step: The economic downturn, the Internet’s ravaging of print-media revenue, and the waning interest in Jewish newspapers among younger Jews. Perhaps most damaging of all, a bruising three-year legal battle with the printing company that had inked the newspaper since the 1950s. Buerger pulled out of a contract with the paper’s longtime printers, family-owned H.G. Roebuck & Son, Inc., whose terms, he felt, were crippling a business already facing financial headwinds. There were multiple lawsuits, a Chapter 11 filing—and a war of words and lawyers that got personal.

Buerger always thought he would die, figuratively, in the publisher’s chair, as his father Charles Buerger had in 1996. It was his dad’s passing that first brought the younger Buerger home to the helm from where he’d been running one of the family’s papers in Vancouver, Canada.

“No one ever retired from that position,” Buerger says. No one had ever been booted out of it, either. But any anger or bitterness about the loss of the family’s vocation is all in the rear-view mirror, Buerger insists. This fourth-generation publisher’s transition to first-generation yogurt maker is unfolding as a joyful second act.

“I had a great run in the media business,” Buerger says. “But I love what I’m doing now. I love the product and the industry. It’s a passion. I’m excited to put my feet on the floor each morning because I know I’m helping people eat healthier with a lower impact on the environment.”

Back in Baltimore, B’More Organic’s global headquarters is an under-the-eaves office tucked into the third floor of the Buerger’s Roland Park Victorian house. Just one floor below are the bedrooms of 3-year-old twins Joss and Bronner, whom the Buergers adopted from Ethiopia in 2010. At nap time, one must tippy-toe around the office. It’s just as well that the company’s sole employee besides the Buergers—marketing manager Eric Chessler—spends most of his time out in the company Chevy Volt visiting merchants.

It’s always causal Friday at the home office, as Buerger has shed the suits and ties of the media world for polo shirts and jeans. And he’s one of those guys who looks like he can still fit into clothes from his college days, thanks to a rabid interest in healthy eating that goes back more than a decade. Adopting a diet of lean protein while nixing sugar and white flour helped him drop 20 pounds and tame spiking cholesterol levels.

“From the day I met him, Andy has always been looking for the perfect food,” Jennifer Buerger says. The pair believes they finally found it on a mountainside in Iceland four years ago, where they had gone to climb the country’s tallest peak, Mount Hvannadalshnjúkur. The trip was a fundraiser for Jodi’s Climb For Hope, a charity they launched in 2006 using mountain climbing as a means to raise money for breast cancer research, while honoring Andrew’s sister, Jodi, who had battled the disease for years before dying in 2009. (Today, the charity also raises money for multiple sclerosis.)

“You have to eat what the guides give you on the mountain, and they served this yogurt-like stuff,” Jennifer Buerger recalls. “I looked at Andy and said, ‘You’re not eating this—I have to share a tent with you!’”

(To clarify: Andrew Buerger is lactose intolerant, and without getting graphic, let’s just say a mountainside tent is perhaps the last place he’d want to experience the intestinal backlash that can occur from ingesting dairy.)

Still, with heaps of calories needed for a strenuous climb, he felt he had little choice but take a few spoonfuls. Turns out, nothing untoward happened. He ate still more the next day and, again, no gut protests. Their hosts told them it was skyr (pronounced “skeer”), a dairy product, technically a cheese, in its Old World form, dating to Viking days. It is similar to Greek yogurt, in that it is strained to concentrate protein, while having the added bonus that its probiotics consume most of the lactose, thus sparing Buerger’s digestive system.

On the plane ride home the pair decided to go into business importing the stuff—until they discovered someone had beaten them to the punch: It was already on the shelves at Whole Foods. They contented themselves with buying a case of it a week, which they usually tossed into a blender with fruit for a nutritious drink. “One day we just looked at each other and said, ‘This is crazy, why don’t we sell a skyr smoothie?’” Jennifer Buerger says.

They worked with a food scientist in the dairy department of the University of Vermont, Andrew’s undergrad alma mater, to come up with a recipe and three flavors: banana, banana mango, and vanilla. Each has at least 15 grams of protein per 8-ounce serving, with zero fat, zero added sugar, and only 120 calories. (Compared to the average cup of flavored yogurt, which, ounce for ounce, has about the same sugar as soda.)

When it came to sourcing the skim milk used to make the smoothies, they looked in Maryland and further north before settling on the Amish countryside. It seemed a natural fit. The Amish were organic before organic was cool. “They were very welcoming,” Buerger says. “I love the way their families farm without hurting the environment, and I wanted to support that.

“And I’m still talking to guys in beards, hats, and black pants,” he adds with a smile, a nod to the sartorial similarities between the Amish and Orthodox Jews.

The drink is made in Amish country as well, and a year ago they moved smoothie production to a second, larger Amish-run plant near Lancaster, PA. (Yes, it uses electricity and modern equipment.) The Buergers invested some $100,000 in a special milk separator required to make skyr. “There went the college fund.” Buerger jokes.

When Buerger was still in publishing, Jennifer ran the company during the day and served as its chief cheerleader. Today, Buerger does the lion’s share of the heavy lifting while she is back at her initial career as a psychotherapist. She puts it another way: “My job now is to pay the bills.” While B’More Organic is growing like gangbusters—they expect another four-fold increase in sales to 35,000 cases this year—it’s still a couple of years away from making money, which is pretty much the norm for such startups. The pair is encouraged by the rise of Greek yogurt, which came out of nowhere to become a multi-billion-dollar industry. And, a new espresso flavor is also in the offing. (They plan to donate a percentage of B’More Organic’s profits to Jodi’s Climb for Hope once the company goes into the black.)

“Not to sound arrogant, but it was really easy to get our products into stores,” Buerger says, noting that Whole Foods and Wegmans took to the healthy, green products right away. “But now you have to go to each store at least once a month, if not more, and pass out samples because if they don’t sell the product, it gets kicked out.”

With his burgeoning business, young children, and not-infrequent trips to Lancaster to talk with his bearded, buggy-driving dairy associates, does Andrew Buerger ever pause to read the Baltimore Jewish Times?

“You know, I don’t even look at it—for a number of reasons,” he says. “I’ve moved on.”