About two years ago people in Riyadh, the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, were puzzled by the appearance in food stores of a strange innovation: chocolate-flavored laban. They were probably unaware of the fact that they were participating in a simple, direct "market test." The chocolate laban was a new-product experiment of the National Dairy Plant of Riyadh, a market-conscious Saudi Arab enterprise.
Laban is the major product of the company. It has been described by Americans variously as "sort of like buttermilk," or "something like yogurt," or "a cross between sour milk and buttermilk." It is a favorite Saudi Arab dairy product and hardly a meal is served without laban. It is served chilled or is used in sauces and dips.
But, chocolate laban? The Saudi Arab palate said "No." Within a week the returns of unsold cartons from the food stores ended the market test. Pineapple, strawberry, honey, and chocolate yogurt may be popular in the United States, but the Saudi Arabs prefer their laban straight.
The modem-minded National Dairy Plant is owned by Fahad al-Gosaibi, a member of a well-known Saudi Arab merchant family, and 'Abd al-Fattah Mughatti. The spic-and-span plant went into operation about three years ago. In addition to laban, the company produces an excellent white Arab cheese and, in the summer months, vanilla and chocolate ice cream.
Always on the alert for new marketing possibilities, the National Dairy Plant also purchases and packages the surplus milk from the production of a herd of dairy cattle. Each day fresh milk is delivered by the company to the doorsteps of dozens of satisfied customers.
Like people the world over, the Saudi Arabs enjoy fresh milk—if it comes directly from a cow, camel or goat. In another product test the National Dairy Plant studied the possibility of marketing "fresh milk" from the stainless steel vats of their "mechanical cow." Again the customers turned thumbs down in favor of laban. Reconstituted sweet milk didn't make the grade.
But laban made from milk powder has been a success.
The processing of the company's laban is fairly simple. Milk powder comes from the United States in large drums. The butter comes from Holland. The individual waxed cardboard containers come from Canada.
The milk powder is combined with boiling water. The mixture passes through a high-speed blender where the butter is added. The laban is then chilled and pumped to the packaging machine. Three sizes of containers are marketed—half-pints, pints and quarts.
Because production is fairly simple, the plant can quickly adapt itself to seasonal fluctuations in the market. The summer months are busy; the winters months fair and improving. During the blistering hot months—June, July and August—as many as 70 merchants purchase the laban for resale. The plant packages 800 half-pints, 480 pints, and 100 quarts of laban daily. The daily cheese production averages 30 kilograms. Volume customers include the hospital, the largest hotel, and (in summer) the Kingdom's military academy, which is in Riyadh.
The company's delivery fleet, small and economical, consists of two pick-up trucks and three Vespa scooter-trucks. Quality is maintained by the close control of every container of laban placed in the stores. Deliveries are made every other day, and unsold laban is picked up by the company, returned to the plant and destroyed.
Inside the plant strict, modern sanitary procedures are maintained. After every "run" from the vats, the system of pipes, vats, chiller and packaging machine is cleansed and disinfected. The floors of the processing rooms are flooded and mopped constantly.
Like any enterprising company, the National Dairy Plant is anxious to grow. There is sufficient floor space for expansion. But experience has taught the company to hedge slightly on the optimism of some of the store-owners who have a tendency to over-order during the hot months. Orders that increase suspiciously are trimmed at the plant.
The company keeps close tabs on the sales in each store, and it has taught merchants the best way to store its laban for day-long freshness. In the past some store-owners used a traditional storage place—the roof of the store. The desert sun helped sales, but it hurt the product.
The company is proud of its product, and it has applied some of the know-how of the Saudi Arab suqs (bazaars) to the inscription on its cartons:
"SUPERIOR MILK—PASTEURIZED, REFINED, NOURISHING—Made by National Dairy Plant, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
Back in the shadows of the cool, dry storage room of the plant there is a small memento of the unpredictability of human taste: nearly 200 pounds of chocolate. The customer is always right. But a company that wants to grow has to take a chance sometimes.