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LI pudding makers aim to scoop up gourmet niche

The partners in New York Natural Pudding Co.

The partners in New York Natural Pudding Co. do a taste test, from left, Lonnie Fortuna, David Smith and Chris DeMark. The trio's Westbury-based business took two years to perfect the eight varieties of pudding that are now being sold in upscale markets. Photo Credit: Steven Sunshine

It took two years for the three founders of New York Natural Pudding Co. to perfect their homemade pudding recipe, making sure it had that familiar smooth texture and was just sweet enough without being overly sugary.

But the real taste test has just begun for the Westbury company, as its owners hope to make pudding, a traditional dessert without much flair, more mainstream.

Owners David Smith, Lonnie Fortuna and Christopher DeMark started selling their products -- eight flavors of smooth pudding and rice pudding -- at high-end natural food stores in New York City and Long Island just last month, but they have ambitious plans that include a pudding food truck and possibly selling their product in national supermarket chains.

Smith, 46, who used to work in the frozen desserts industry and is now a venture capitalist, said he believes there is a gap in the market for high-quality pudding products.

"Traditional desserts always come full circle. Whoever thought gourmet cupcakes would be such a craze?" he said. "We believe we're the first to offer . . . an artisan-grade pudding in a consumer-packaged form."

Standing out from crowd

Businesses selling new food products need to differentiate themselves -- adding a fresh spin to a traditional product -- to draw the attention of consumers who have been influenced by the growing "foodie" culture, said Melissa Abbott, industry analyst at The Hartmann Group in Bellevue, Wash.

Abbott cited Fonuts -- baked or steamed doughnuts, which originated in Los Angeles -- and ice pops flavored with red pepper as examples of successful differentiation.

Pudding "is definitely something that's ripe for re-imagination," she said. Right now, it's "something you think of when you've had dental work done . . . there's a nostalgic factor." When that exists, a food company can either market its product to cater to that familiarity, or throw in a twist to spark new interest, she said.

New York Natural Pudding created offbeat flavors such as salty caramel and French toast in hopes of drawing more consumers. (The most popular flavor is chocolate.)

The food truck is another way the company is trying to gain name recognition, Smith said. The truck will begin selling pudding, as well as parfaits and other desserts made from pudding, in Manhattan and Brooklyn in October.

The company got its start in 2010 when Smith -- looking for a new product to invest in -- met Fortuna, 44, who had been selling rice pudding made from his grandmother's recipes at local farmers markets. DeMark, 38, later joined the partnership and offered Dessert Solutions -- a culinary incubator he owns in Westbury -- as the site to produce the pudding, which is made by hand in small batches.

Marketing to the right clients

The company uses a specialty distributor to market its product to natural food stores. Fortuna, who visits shops to pitch the pudding, said most stores like the product and want to sell it immediately.

Rusty Pacheco, the gourmet buyer at Grace's Marketplace in Greenvale, said he was attracted to the pudding because the unique flavors make it a specialty product. A 12-ounce tub sells for $5.49.

Pacheco said it's the only pudding the store sells. Grace's does not carry products from Hicksville-based Kozy Shack, the national pudding brand that food analysts pointed to as New York Natural Pudding's biggest competitor.

But the story might be different if the company tries to go the way of Kozy Shack and be stocked at national grocery chains -- where competition for shelf space in refrigerated sections is intense, said Nikoleta Panteva, an analyst with market researcher IBIS World.

"Competition from established brands is going to be the biggest hurdle, as well as from alternative types of desserts and snacks," she said. "Carving out that space for yourself takes a lot of time and a lot of money."

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