Daniel Carasso, 103, Dies; Businessman Introduced America to Dannon Yogurt

By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Daniel Carasso, the father of modern yogurt and the businessman who added the Dannon brand to American breakfast tables and lunchboxes, died May 17 at his home in Paris. He was 103. A spokesman for the company did not give a cause of death.

Mr. Carasso and yogurt went way back, even by centenarian standards. His father, Isaac, began selling the stuff in Barcelona 90 years ago, naming the venture "Danone" after young Daniel, the eldest child and only boy in the family. In Catalan, Mr. Carasso went by "Danon," or "Danny."

Danone became a household name, first in the Old World after Mr. Carasso brought his father's business to France in 1929 and then in the New World, where the young Jewish businessman headed during World War II to save his life and, as it turned out, expand the family fortune.

In the United States, Mr. Carasso changed the company name to Dannon, which had a better ring to American ears, an adman told him. To make the rather sour product more appealing to American taste buds, he and partners Joe and Juan Metzger decided in 1947 to add strawberry jam. "Fruit on the Bottom" was enough to turn an obscure ethnic food into a favorite American snack.

Anne Mendelson, author of "Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages," said the original founders could hardly have imagined the exotic flavors of modern yogurt.

"Amaretto cheesecake yogurt?" she said, laughing. "Nonfat? Lemon cream pie nonfat yogurt?"

Dannon's most recent additions to the flavor lineup, according to a company spokesman, are key lime pie and pomegranate.

Daniel Carasso was born in 1905 in Salonika, Greece, where his Sephardic Jewish family had settled in 1492 after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. By the early 1900s, Mr. Carasso's father had decided to take the family back to Spain but made a detour to Switzerland; his wife had tuberculosis, and he was told that she would be better able to recover there.

In Switzerland, Isaac Carasso had an unlikely encounter with a Bulgarian immigrant who wanted to begin making yogurt from high-quality Swiss milk and selling it to locals. The two men went into business together, giving Isaac the experience he needed to open his own yogurt company in Spain in 1919. It was one of the first modern yogurt companies.

Those were high times for yogurt, with a Nobel Prize-winning Russian microbiologist, Elie Metchnikoff, arguing that the bacilli in the product could extend human life. Those claims were largely make-believe, according to Mendelson, but yogurt was treated much like a medicine; Isaac Carasso's yogurt was sold mostly in pharmacies.

In 1923, Isaac sent 18-year-old Daniel to Marseille, France, to study business. There Mr. Carasso learned French and, in an effort to better understand yogurt, began studying bacteriology at the Pasteur Institute in 1925.

After a failed attempt to introduce a yogurtlike product in the form of a pill, which he called "Vigardyne," or the "guardian of life," Mr. Carasso opened a French chapter of his father's business and began selling yogurt in returnable porcelain pots, advertising it as a "dessert for happy digestion." The French chapter eventually outgrew the original one in Barcelona.

Mr. Carasso received a temporary permit to test the prospect of adding fruit to yogurt -- which was illegal in France at the time -- but World War II broke out before he had the opportunity to fully test the market.

When officials at the Spanish consulate in Paris notified Mr. Carasso that they could no longer guarantee his safety from the Nazis, he entrusted the business to two colleagues and took his new wife, Nina, to the United States. They arrived in New York in November 1941, two weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 1942, Mr. Carasso bought a mom-and-pop yogurt company from a Greek family in the Bronx. After renaming the company Dannon and adding fruit, he and the Metzgers introduced Americans to modern yogurt. Among their backers was financier and statesman Bernard Baruch. Beatrice Foods bought the company in 1959, eventually making Dannon the first producer of fresh dairy products sold coast-to-coast.

After the war, Mr. Carasso returned to Europe and retook Danone in Spain and France. The company eventually merged with Gervais, a French dairy company, and then BSN, a French bottlemaker. The conglomerate later bought Dannon from Beatrice Foods and changed its name to Groupe Danone.

Mr. Carasso, a polished businessman who often sported a three-piece suit, remained honorary chairman and continued advising company executives until shortly before his death.

He is survived by one daughter, Marina Nahmias; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. No members of the Carasso family are involved in day-to-day operations of Groupe Danone, according to a company spokesman.

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