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This Yogurt King Has Turned a Sour-Tasting Snack into a Sweet Story of Success

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‘If only Dad were a Good Humor man,’ Metzger’s son once said

Once an apple a day kept the doctor away. Then Juan Metzger sold America on another panacea, yogurt. As chairman of the board of Dannon, Metzger turned a tart, unknown product into a staple of the U.S. diet. Paradoxically, yogurt appeals to the overweight and the undernourished, the health-food advocate and the fast-food junkie. When Dannon was founded in 1942, the company sold 200 jars of yogurt a day. Americans now eat 1.2 billion cups a year, and one-third are made by Dannon, the country’s biggest supplier. The rest of the market is divided among dozens of companies. Some 900,000 containers are shipped daily from Dannon headquarters in Queens, N.Y. and five smaller plants around the country. “It’s not the perfect food,” Metzger says, “but it’s the closest thing in the supermarket.”

Although the 62-year-old impresario is credited with almost single-handedly converting Americans to yogurt, in the beginning Metzger couldn’t even give it away. World War II was on and Juan and his Swiss parents had emigrated to New York. With a partner, Daniel Carasso, the Metzgers started Dannon, using the Carasso family formula. It had been marketed in Spain and France as Danone. The yogurt was packed in returnable jars, which Juan had to wash each day. “Our customers were mostly European immigrants and health-food fanatics,” he recalls. “We only sold $20 worth a day, but even then we were the bigger of the two companies in the business.”

Metzger decided plain yogurt was too tart for the American palate, so in 1947 he added strawberry preserve to the fermented milk base. (It is still the best seller among the 15 Dannon flavors.) In the afternoons he visited supermarkets with samples. “The reaction,” he says, “was usually, ‘Gee, yogurt isn’t as bad as it sounds.’ ” In 1950, when Metzger began stressing the nutritional and low-calorie value of yogurt in his ads, sales spurted. Yogurt was soon being eaten around the clock. “Certain foods are connected with a time of day,” Metzger says. “Yogurt is not.” By 1959 Dannon was such a success that Metzger sold the company to Beatrice Foods for $3 million in stock, with the agreement that he continue to head the yogurt operation.

In 1977 Metzger won over even more customers with a memorable TV commercial, featuring an ancient Russian eating a cup of Dannon. “We did not have absolute proof,” Metzger slyly admits, “but allegedly in Georgia, the people grow very old because they eat yogurt. So we shot the first American commercial ever made in the U.S.S.R. We used an 89-year-old man. He liked Dannon so much he ate two cups a day. The background voice said, ‘And this pleased his mother very much.’ She was 114.”

Recently divorced from his wife of 29 years, Metzger lives in a plush Madison Avenue co-op. He jogs every morning before climbing into his chauffered Mercedes to go to the Dannon plant, where his son Tim, 28, works as director of planning.

Dannon fans are everywhere. They range from Robert Redford to Dallas quarterback Danny White to the Bolshoi Ballet. Even the White House now has a vending machine with Dannon in it. Still, Metzger remains a man with a mission. “More than half the population of this country, mostly those outside the cities, have never tasted yogurt,” he says. “My task has only just begun.”