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A Tale of Three Cows and One Unlikely Arsonist

A while back, as I listened to an NPR Morning Edition piece on Edgar Diaz, a Dallas yogurt-maker-turned-arsonist, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad. The story brought to mind lyrics from Sting’s Moon Over Bourbon Street, a song about a tortured New Orleanian vampire (“I must love what I destroy and destroy the thing I love”). You see, Diaz, out of desperation, set fire to his yogurt factory, where he made the very thing that brought him the greatest happiness. So how did Diaz come to such a desperate crossroads?

Let’s start at the beginning. Diaz fell in love with milk as a university student in Bogotá, Columbia, where he studied dairy technology and science. As a baker with a similar bread fascination, I can understand his excitement for milk as a live medium. Diaz, fleeing the violence of the Colombian civil war with his wife, was granted political asylum by the United States and ended up in Dallas. Nine years later, after working for Wendy’s and selling used cars, Diaz got his chance to return to what he loved: A friend offered to help him fund a yogurt company. Diaz designed the plant himself with “walls of glass” so that everyone could witness the miracle of yogurt-making.

The company, Three Happy Cows, certainly had a storybook beginning. Diaz’s original product was a drinkable yogurt, which came in flavors such as piña colada, mango, strawberry, and blueberry. When it came to his artisanal yogurt, he was uncompromising in his standards, using only local organic milk without additives, preservatives, or food coloring. The label was simple: two little brown cows in profile on either side of a Holstein cow staring straight at the consumer about to drink the yogurty goodness. The product was a hit at local farmers’ markets. As McKinney farmers’ market founder Cindy Johnson told NPR, “The product was really exceptionally good. It was just the first place everybody stopped. I mean, it’s hard to describe just how good it was!” Soon, Three Happy Cows expanded into Greek yogurt. Then the American Cheese Society came knocking in 2012 with an award in the Best Greek Yogurt category.

But at the end of the day, a business must make money. And while Three Happy Cows was an unparalleled success in terms of taste and product reception, it was an utter failure financially. Troubled ensued when Diaz’s friend brought in three investors to manage the struggling brand. The newcomers were a local restaurateur and two SMU graduates with their own granola company. Diaz alleges that the product began to change—no more organic milk, a lesser-quality honey, you get the picture. He also alleged that his office belongings were thrown in the trash!

As Diaz watched his vision erode piece by piece, he became increasingly troubled. The investors offered Diaz part ownership of the company, but the catch was that he would have to sign a noncompete clause. Although these clauses are pretty standard, Diaz couldn’t imagine being contractually barred from making yogurt for any other company over the next five years.

As they say, knowledge is power, and the last straw came when Diaz worked into the wee weekend hours to fulfill a large order. He believed the investors had learned his yogurt formula and was beside himself. As he told NPR, “I come into a panic. I want to die. I start to walk to crazy around the plant.” With no more cards left to play, Diaz felt forced out of the game. And if he was out of the game, then so was Three Happy Cows. And so he burned it all to the ground. Because this act of arson interfered with interstate commerce, the charge was federal, i.e., big time. Diaz was sentenced to five years in federal prison and ordered to pay $1.5 million in restitution.

And what of Three Happy Cows? Although production of the yogurt ceased for a time after the arson, the investors rebranded and developed new recipes. The cute little cow faces were replaced by what The Dallas Observer aptly called “a troika of hipster Holsteins riding a tandem bicycle.” The (groan-inducingly monikered) Sport Mootility Vehicle was born:

Then, in 2014, marketing director Brian Twomey announced a partnership with Taco Bell to introduce the Greek Power Yogurt breakfast parfait in the chain’s Omaha locations; the same year, Tyson Foods acquired the brand. But by 2015, it was clear that Diaz had in some ways been vindicated: Tyson announced that the brand discontinued production of yogurt. So much for happy cows.

Photo Credit “Pina Colada Drinkable Yogurt” by Artizone | CC

Johnisha Levi

Johnisha Levi is a Boston-area pastry cook and one of those very rare (think Pegasus) D.C. natives. If ithere's a documentary on food or true crime, chances are that she's seen it (or it's waiting in her Netflix queue). She's a culinary history nerd who is eager to spend her summer at culture learning more about cheese.