The Story

Edgar Diaz has dedicated his life to dairy. He sees an incredible beauty in milk and the things that can come from it: soft cheese, rich dulce de leche, and creamy yogurt.

He knows that to produce a really good yogurt, the conditions are just as important as the ingredients. You can use the freshest milk, but if your temperature is off or the timing inexact you risk ruining the whole batch.

Edgar has a lot in common with some of the world’s most successful founders: intense passion, a deep knowledge of his product, and awards and acclaim from peers in his field. He seems to have all the ingredients for success, and the conditions seem right, so why is he so far from it?

 

The Facts

Matthew Boll mixed the episode.

Our theme song was written and performed by Mark Phillips.

The special ad music, Microliters, was written and performed by Build Buildings. 

Additional music from Kevin Sparks, Takstar, Tyler Strickland, Marley Carroll and the band Hot Moms Got Gov .

Our logo was designed by Elias Stein.

 

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Audible

Show transcript

LISA: So here’s a moment that few people would imagine happening to their business.

It’s March 2013. And a man named Edgar Diaz is looking at what’s left of his factory. It’s a charred smoking ruin.

Edgar runs a dairy company. The fire started early that morning, and he’s standing there, in an industrial area in northern Dallas, just watching the smoldering building.

Something that’s usually a metaphor is happening to Edgar: the thing he built, threw his life into, it just went up in flames.

From Gimlet, this is StartUp. I’m Lisa Chow.

There are a lot of different things that can take down a business.  Customers won’t buy what you’re selling. Banks won’t lend you money. You get priced out by the competition.

The thing that destroyed Edgar Diaz’s company? There’s a simple answer… and a complicated one.

Dan Charles is an NPR correspondent who covers food and agriculture, and he introduced us to this story. He’s been following Edgar for the last year. In today’s show, Dan shows us how Edgar got to this point, a journey that involves kidnapping, prison, and the cut-throat business of making yogurt.

 

 

DAN: The path to that moment—Edgar Diaz looking at his burned-out yogurt factory in Texas—it’s been a long one. And it started in an entirely different place. In Colombia. The city of Medellin.

That’s is where Edgar met Diana Ocampo.  They married, and started a small business together more than twenty years ago.

They’d both studied animal science at the university in Medellin. Dairy science, too—how to turn milk into cheese and yogurt.

And that became their business. They’d drive all over the countryside outside of Medellin, buying milk from farmers. They’d take it back to their own farm, and turn it into cream, fresh cheeses, dulce de leche.

Diana and Edgar say those were good times.

 

DIANA: When you go to the little farms, and you found this guy milking the cow. And they wake up at 3 a.m. to do that. And you get that milk, it’s like a magic. You get that milk, you bring it to you own plant, and then you process that milk and you make this cheese. And then you give it to someone and they enjoy. And that face they have when they, ‘Oh my god, this is so good, how you make it?’ That make you feel so good.

EDGAR: This is probably the best time in my life. We working so hard, but you never feel tired. Our day started around 3 a.m. in the morning, when the trucks go out. And after this, we go to the country and visit the producers. When you do this, you can see the people dream.

 

DAN: See the people dream, Edgar says. He talks about one of the farmers. A woman who had two cows. Now that she was selling some of the milk, she was hoping to get two more.  

Edgar and Diana’s first customer owned a handful of cafés around Medellin. Word spread, and soon other cafés were lining up to by their cream, their cheese, their yogurt. Then some schools. They hired a few people to keep up with demand.

It was exciting. But what Edgar loved most was the craft, the knowledge, the way bacteria, time, and temperature turn milk into cheese and yogurt.  

 

EDGAR: You have to know, oh I have good bacterias, I have bad bacterias, what are the good doing, what are the bad doing? For me, the yoghurt is everything!

 

DAN: So Edgar and Diana were living their dream, twenty years ago; meeting farmers, collecting milk.  Selling cheese. At its peak, Edgar says they had twenty five employees, and were grossing thirty thousand dollars a month.

That’s when the warnings started.

Phone calls from the FARC, a guerrilla movement in the hills. Originally, it was dedicated to socialist ideals.  But by this time, the year 2000, it was acting more like an organized crime operation, demanding protection money.

And I should say, the story that Diana and Edgar tell, it’s difficult to confirm it. But journalists who cover Colombia say shakedowns and harassment like this were common at that time, and there often are no records of it.

Edgar says the FARC wanted a lot of cash—thousands of dollars—more than he even had. So instead, he tried to outwit the guerrillas, he hid from them. Changed cars.

But he says, he didn’t tell Diana.  He felt like he should take care of this by himself.

And one day, the guerillas stopped his car as he was going out to visit farmers.

 

EDGAR: Some people arrive. They say, “Edgar!” And I turn around and say, “Yeah?” It’s kid with machine guns. And they jump and say, “Okay, let’s go!” I say, “What?” “Let’s go.” “Where?” With the guns, you can’t run; you can’t do anything.”

 

DAN: Diana got a call from coworkers who were with Edgar.

 

DAN: Do you remember that day?

DIANA: Yeah, I was a… I didn’t tell anyone in my family that happened.

 

DAN: Diana says she was at a birthday party when the call came.

 

DIANA: I say, “Oh okay. Okay. Oh, okay I see. Okay. Okay, bye.” I just hang up. And “Who call you?’’ “Oh no one!” And I just keep clapping and singing, “Happy birthday to you.” And then I go home.”

 

DAN: She felt like she had to keep this thing quiet. She didn’t want her family to worry.

The guerrillas demanded money. She told them she didn’t have it.  

She waited.

These days Edgar says he doesn’t want to talk about the details of his captivity. A few years ago though, he told a reporter that the guerrillas walked him blindfolded through the forest, beat him, and chained to a tree at night.

After a week or so, the Colombian police attacked the group of guerillas that was holding Edgar hostage and set him free.

Edgar says that the police told him to leave if he could. So he did. Caught a flight to Miami before he even saw his family again. He wasn’t sure when or where he would be reunited with them.

After he fled, the guerillas came around again; this time looking for Edgar and Diana’s four-year-old daughter, Alejandra.  

 

DIANA: They stop the school bus.

DAN: The guerrillas stop the bus.

DIANA: Yeah, and they looking for Alejandra.

 

DAN: But on that day, Alejandra had been sick, she was dehydrated. Diana had taken her to a hospital.

 

DIANA: And my sister went to my house and took my passport and she pack like gym bag with a Barney, Alejandra’s favorite toy. Some clothes for her. Just one clothes for me and my passport. That’s it. I never come back. I never went to my house, I never see anything.

 

DAN: She and Alejandra caught a flight to Miami to meet Edgar.

Over the next few months, Diana’s sister sold off some of the farm equipment. A lot of it she gave away.

And that was the end of their first business.

Edgar and Diana applied for asylum in the United States.  A year later, in 2002, they got it and started over in Dallas.

Back in Colombia, they lived a comfortable middle-class life. Now, Diana was cleaning houses. Edgar was working at Wendy’s. For a while he was buying and selling used cars. Both of them were struggling to learn English.

Edgar got back into the dairy business for a while—helped a farmer launch a line of cheeses. But that partnership broke apart. He was at loose ends, not sure what to do.

Then, a friend came to talk.  A guy named Juan Padilla.  Someone he’d met at church, who’d also seen his work at that cheese company.

 

 

EDGAR: And he asking me, “What are you doing? Why you don’t start it again?” I say, “You know, Juan, the milk business is no easy. The milk business is like you have a lover. You always spend money and money and money and money and you never finish to spend money.”

 

DAN: They kept talking.  Juan Padilla said, look, I have money to invest. You’re a master yogurt-maker. Together, we can do this. Edgar says they talked about ownership, agreed that Juan would own most of the company; Edgar would own about a quarter.  

He went to Diana, asked her what she thought.

 

DIANA: “You think we shall start again?” And I say, “Oh my goodness again?”

 

DAN: Because behind that first question was another one:

 

DIANA: “Are you going to support me again?” That’s what he ask me. Because I have to, like, work double to cover for certain time with all the expenses in the house while he start to make money in there. For me, it’s hard, but at the same time, it’s like a challenge.

 

DAN: Our producer Bruce Wallace had a question for her.

 

BRUCE: And why did you say, “Go ahead?” What made you say, “Even though I’m going to have to work double, go ahead and do this.”

 

DIANA: Because he knows how to do it. That’s the hard part: found something that you can make that is good. We have that. We have that. The rest is put everything together, and work.

 

DAN: That seems to have been pretty much the idea behind this company:  Edgar can make yogurt like nobody else.  Hard work will take care of the rest.  

Juan wrote a check for twenty thousand dollars to get things going. Edgar threw himself into building a new yogurt plant.

 

EDGAR: All the plant is designed for me. Even the walls. The walls is glass because I love the people see how we made it. We don’t have nothing hiding. The people can see “Oh, this guy do it like this.”

 

DAN: The building wasn’t fancy and most of the equipment was second-hand, but the factory was just the way he wanted it. There were temperature-controlled vats, stainless-steel pipes, a walk-in cooler that Edgar called “The Cave.”

 

DIANA: He feels so good about it.  He feels so good about it.

 

DAN: Diana says when people commented on the yogurt, Edgar was proud to say: I’m the owner.

 

DIANA:  “I made it. I made the company. And who designed this? I made the design.  And this machine? Oh, I made that machine. And the formula? The recipe?  It’s mine.”  

 

DAN: Edgar decided to use organic milk. That would set their yogurt apart from others, he thought.  

And there were lots of others.  This was the time Greek yogurt and fancier yogurt, was taking over the dairy aisle. Chobani, FAGE, and lots of little boutique brands.

Edgar came up with a name for the company—Three Happy Cows—and tried it out on a group of friends. They all laughed. That was it: Three Happy Cows.

He took his new yogurt around Dallas to talk to potential customers.  

He’d set up in a shop, give out samples, talk about what he was making.

 

EDGAR: For one week I went in every single day. I be in the store. I know the customer. You come in and, “Hey Edgar, how are you doing? Hey, hey, how is the yogurt today?” “Oh, it’s good.” And after a week, I know so many customers. It creates the relation with people.

 

DAN: Diana didn’t take a job at the company. She told Edgar she didn’t want them to put all their eggs in the same basket, but she had her own window into the life of his customers. She cleaned the houses of some of them.

And as she did, she watched for clues to what those people liked. She looked at Edgar’s labels and she thought, those labels look cheap.

 

DIANA: And I say, “Mmm, I don’t see those labels in those refrigerators, and I clean in there. Improve that label.” Or they think of, what they have for breakfast? Those families have this and this and this for breakfast.  They don’t have this, this, this. And I say to him, Edgar, less sugar, less calories, because they always want to be in shape. That was my help!

 

DAN: The company started in 2010.  In 2011, it sold seventy thousand dollars worth of yogurt.  The next year, they sold five times as much. Their biggest customers were high-end grocery stores around Texas. They were working on a deal with Whole Foods.

And Edgar was proud of that. But he was even more proud of the reputation his yogurt was getting. It won best drinkable yogurt at a national competition in 2010, and he took home prizes  again the next two years.

For a tiny yogurt company that was basically riding on one man’s obsession and the bank account of Juan Padilla, who was a newcomer in the food business, this felt like incredible success.

About two years into its life though, Three Happy Cows ran into the problem that a lot of new businesses face. It was growing, but it wasn’t turning a profit.  

In this case, the company was tens of thousands of dollars behind in paying one of its milk suppliers. And Juan Padilla, the company’s sole financial backer, was running out of cash and patience.  

If it was going to survive, Three Happy Cows needed investors with deeper pockets, people willing to put a million dollars into the company. Probably more.

In January, 2013, new investors did arrive.  Three Dallas businessmen with experience in food and restaurants. One of them, Stephen White, was a customer; that’s how Edgar knew him.

Their interest was a huge vote of confidence.

But the arrival of the investors revealed another, potentially more troubling problem: it wasn’t actually clear who owned the company.

Edgar says he and Juan had agreed to be co-owners.  But that’s not how the company was set up.  

There are documents that seem to support Edgar’s version of the story.  

For example, we have a copy of the Articles of Organization for Three Happy Cows. This is basically the document that creates the company. It’s from early 2010. A draft lists Juan Padilla and Edgar Diaz as partners. But someone has crossed out Edgar’s name.  In the version that Juan Padilla filed a few weeks later, he is listed as the company’s sole owner.

And when the investors came on the scene, more than two years later, Edgar pushed Juan to get this ownership question resolved.  He wrote Juan a note, laying out what he thought was their current agreement, things had shifted a bit: now it was eighty percent for Juan and his wife; twenty percent for Edgar. Juan signed the note, says he agreed with this. But nothing changed.  

Edgar was increasingly frustrated with his partner. But he didn’t tell Diana what was going on.  

 

DAN: Did he ever talk about this question of how much of the company he did own?

DIANA: No. That was the mistake to me. He hide everything because he don’t wants to make me worry. He hides all those problems with money and all that kind of stuff, because he knows I will probably make him take different decisions like, “Wait a minute what are you doing with this?” He has a dream, and he tried to do whatever it takes to make that company keep going.

 

DAN: Edgar says he can pinpoint the moment—late one night, at the office—when he really stopped trusting Juan Padilla. It was in January, 2013.

 

EDGAR: In the night I found the papers.

 

DAN: Two sets of papers. Two contracts. In the first one, Juan Padilla turned over management of the company to the new investors.

The second one outlined a deal in which Juan would sell the company to them at some point in the near future for one point three million dollars.

And Edgar realized none of that money would go to him.  

Edgar confronted Juan.

 

EDGAR: And I asking Juan, “Do you sell the company? Tell me the truth.” “No, no, never!”  I’m very pissed off.  I say, “Okay.”

 

DAN: Edgar felt like Juan was lying to him. True, Juan hadn’t sold the company yet, but the documents showed he did plan to.  

And the potential buyers were already managing the company. Making changes. Cutting costs.    

 

EDGAR: They cut the organic milk. They cut quality control. They cut the hour of the employees. They destroy everything we do in three months.

 

DAN: I have to be clear: There are documents that support parts of Edgar’s story, but some other parts, we can’t verify. And Juan Padilla and other former partners won’t talk on the record 

I left messages for Juan. The only response I got was a text message.  It reads, quote “So painful. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t know where you got my cellphone and I don’t care but please delete it.”

I sent him a list of questions by mail, but never heard back.

I do have a copy of an email exchange between Juan and Edgar from those months when things were getting bad between them. It’s translated from Spanish. In it, Juan spells out just how much Three Happy Cows cost him when he was the only investor:  “As you know, I was losing 20,000 every two weeks,” he writes, “just with the promise that some day we would reach a point of equilibrium. We never arrived”

Juan is optimistic about the new investors, writing, quote, “We are going to work with them and see what the future brings, I have faith that the future will be great, but only God knows.'”

One of the Dallas businessmen agreed to talk briefly off-mic. His name is Blaine Iler.   

He told me he’s signed non-disclosure agreements that prevent him from talking about many parts of the Three Happy Cows story. But he wanted me to know a couple of things. Edgar Diaz made an incredible product, he told me. But that’s the only thing he did well. He didn’t know the most basic business information, like how much it actually cost to make his yogurt.

He told me, they weren’t destroying Three Happy Cows. They were turning it around.

Blaine Iler also said that Edgar didn’t know it, but he and his partners were prepared to make Edgar part-owner of the new company.  

After discovering those two contracts, though, all Edgar could think about was how he was losing control of the company that he thought was his. Now he hated going to work at the company, taking orders from people he felt didn’t respect him. He was frustrated, angry, increasingly paranoid.

He tightened his grip on the things that he could control, like the yogurt-making process.  

Even though he’d taken pride in the windows that let people see how yogurt was made, he now tried to keep the details secret.  That knowledge was his source of power.

He says, one of the new investors came to him and asked for the formulas to make the company’s yogurt.

 

EDGAR: And I say, “Why do you want the formulas?” And he say, “We bought the company.” I say, “Okay. Who is the seller?” He say, “Juan!”  I say, “My name is not Juan. Call up Juan and ask Juan for the formulas. You don’t have to talk with me.”

 

DAN: The investors offered Edgar a new deal, an employment contract.

 

EDGAR: And they start bringing me contracts.

DAN: Sort of like this?

EDGAR: Let me see. Oh yes, yes.

 

DAN: I have a copy of one of these contracts, retrieved from the files at Three Happy Cows. And there’s a handwritten note on the top left hand corner of the first page.  A single word, in big block letters:  No. With an exclamation point.

 

DAN: Did you write this?

EDGAR: Yes. Yes.

DAN: Can you remember the time when you looked at this document and scrawled no exclamation point on it?

EDGAR: Yeah! It’s down in Starbucks, my favorite place for take decision. I read it and I say, “Come on! I can work for nobody, and they offer me part of the profit.” It’s not the company, it’s of the profit.

DAN: This doesn’t include any ownership?

ED: No. If you read it they offer to you, I think, twenty five percent of the profit. What happens if the company is not profit? You don’t have nothing.

 

DAN: Actually, the version that we got a copy of doesn’t include a share of the profit. It just lays out Edgar’s salary, as an employee: sixty thousand dollars.

Edgar didn’t sign it, but he didn’t leave, either. He kept working, making yogurt. Diana knew by this time what was going on at the company, and she could see Edgar was falling apart inside.

 

DIANA: Edgar doesn’t smile anymore. Edgar was, like, depressed. So depressed. Like, he doesn’t want to come home. He lose weight. He was going cuckoo. Because these guys start to take Edgar’s position away.

 

DAN: A lot of people in Edgar’s position might have walked away. Diana says he just couldn’t. This was his life.

 

DIANA: “This is mine, I don’t want to leave it.” You know, it’s like you write half the story and somebody else say “Let me finish for you.” “No way, that’s mine I want to finish. I start that it’s my idea.” It’s hard, and it’s not the first time. It was the third time is gonna happen. He feels like he’s gonna fail for me or, you know, he’s gonna fail for the family. I just thinking he was like saying, “Oh my god. I did it again. How am I going to tell Diana? We gonna have to start from zero.”

 

DAN: The last of the contracts that the new investors offered to Edgar, for him to sign, is dated March 15, 2013. It was a Friday.

And on that day, the investors were  excited. Optimistic. They thought that Three Happy Cows was about to break through.

They’d received a big order from an upscale chain of grocery stores called Central Market. The biggest order ever. They told Edgar, “If we can do this, it’ll open lots of doors.”

 

EDGAR: They challenge me with, “You can make five thousand Greek yogurts? We have an order for five thousand Greek yogurts? That’s the end. If we do this one, we have all the deals.”

 

DAN: Edgar worked through the weekend, on March 16 and 17, to finish the job.  

In the middle of the night, Sunday night, he drove his sister-in-law to the airport. And on the way back, he stopped at the factory to see if the yogurt was done.

 

EDGAR: And I coming into the factory to see if I have the product. I went into the cave, the walk-in cooler and open the tanks. I testing, and when I saw it when I move it and smell it, I say “Yes!” and I’m jumping very happy. Say, “Man, I made it I made it! I know I made it!” But second later, and I saw all the cases and everything ready for delivery, I start thinking, “I make a mistake.”

 

DAN: As he scanned the biggest batch of yogurt Three Happy Cows had ever produced, this is what Edgar says dawned on him: I gave up my secret.

To make a batch this big, he needed to bring in more people. And he starts thinking: All those people, I showed them how to do what I do. It’s not just a matter of formulas—this much milk, this much bacteria, combine them at this temperature—it’s a matter of watching the process, reacting to it.   

 

EDGAR: That is the secret. Nobody have a trademark on the yogurt, but you yogurt and my yogurt is different, it’s how we made it. They know how I did it. Everybody saw it. They don’t need me.

 

DAN: He was thinking, probably not too clearly, that he’d lost the one thing that he still controlled at the company, the part of the business that he cared about more than anything—the craft of it.  And nobody had forced him to hand over that knowledge; he’d done it all by himself.

Edgar says, that’s when he cracked.

 

EDGAR: The first thing I try to think is how you can kill yourself. I have some gasoline we use for cleaning the equipment. I saw the gasoline and I say, “Okay. I want to die with this one. I burn with this place.”

 

DAN: I burn with this place, he says.  He started pouring gasoline here, there. Arson investigators, looking at the scene later said that fires were started in at least six different places.

 

EDGAR: And I dumping and I set it.  

 

DAN: He set the fire. And he says, then he laid down on the floor, thinking he’d die there.  

But when he hear the sound of the fire, smelled the smoke, he couldn’t go through with it.

 

EDGAR: When I saw the fire ,I was terrified and I running.

 

DAN: He ran to his car. And he drove home.  

 

EDGAR: In the morning I receive a call from Juan. I went to the place and I can’t believe the damage I made. Man. All the place is dark and filled up with water. The walls is completely black. I don’t know what I did it. I feel destroyed.

 

DAN: Blaine Iler, the investor, was there that morning. He remembers Edgar just walking around sobbing. It never occurred to him that Edgar had started the fire.

 

EDGAR: And I left the place and I went to a lake and I spent almost all the day sit down thinking what I did it. I remember, I receive call from Diana and she asking me, “Where are you?” and I tell, I say, “No, I thinking right now.”

 

DAN: He didn’t tell Diana what he’d done. He told investigators that he was at home when the fire happened.

But, over the next few months, they zeroed in on him. They administered a polygraph. Edgar failed. Three times. That’s when he admitted it was him.

 

EDGAR: If I tell you the truth, after I tell the police, I feel better. And then I go and I tell Diana. I say, “Diana, you know, I did it, I did it.” I say, “I did it.” She says, “Are you sure?” I say “Yeah.”

 

LISA: Coming up, what happens to you, your family and your business after you’ve burned everything down. That’s after these words from our sponsor.

 

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LISA: Welcome back to StartUp, I’m Lisa Chow.

Before the break, we were telling the story of Edgar Diaz. He’d built a factory in Dallas to practice the craft he loved: making yogurt. Then, he burned that factory down. Dan Charles continues our story.

 

DAN: Edgar’s crime wrecked more than a yogurt factory.  It threw his family into turmoil. Blew up their finances. Left their future uncertain.

After the fire, Edgar was in limbo for more than a year and a half, waiting to hear his sentence.  He was diagnosed with depression, started taking medication.

In the meantime, the three Dallas businessmen closed their deal with Juan Padilla. They bought Three Happy Cows, started making the yogurt at another company’s factory. And then, only a few months into their ownership, they turned around and sold the company to an industry giant: Tyson Foods.

Edgar’s lawyer says, if the investors had actually made Edgar a part owner, he would have pocketed something like three hundred thousand dollars from the sale.

A year and a half later, Tyson shut down Three Happy Cows.

And that same month, January 2015, Edgar Diaz was sentenced to five years in prison.  

 

DIANA: Michelle, algo despues.

MICHELLE: I’m right here!

 

DAN: It’s a Friday, a beautiful spring day a few months back. I meet Diana and her younger daughter Michelle on their way out the door to visit Edgar in prison.  Friday is the  one day each week when Diana now gets to see her husband.  And Michelle gets to see her father.

 

DIANA: This is my typical Friday. I left Michelle school around 7:45, straight to work.  Pick Michelle at 3:15, we have lunch like really quick…que quieres? What happened?

 

DAN: We’re heading southeast from Dallas toward the tiny town of Seagoville, toward the biggest thing in Seagoville: the Federal prison.

Michelle is sitting in the back seat.  She’s nine years old.

When she describes the routine for visiting her father, she could be describing the dress code at a strict private school.

 

DIANA: Yeah, Michelle, do you know some rules? Do you know what you need to wear? MICHELLE: Yeah, um, actually there’s this rule, like, for ten and up that you have to wear sleeves that cover your shoulders. You can’t wear leggings, but pants that can’t be khaki that have to go over your knee, which is insane, especially when it’s summer.

 

DAN: Michelle is clutching two stuffed animals. Handmade.

 

DIANA: My dad made these. One of them is a bear holding a heart and another is a dragon holding a heart. The dragon’s name is Dragonil. My dad named it not me.

 

DAN: From the front seat, Diana asks, “What does Dragonil do?”

 

MICHELLE: He gives me love and he protects me from bullies.

DIANA: Que es eso Michelle? What is Bully?  

MICHELLE: A bully, it’s someone who picks on another person.

 

DAN: Diana explains, when you have a dad in jail, you get bullied a lot.

We get to the prison a little after five. There’s a line outside the front gate.

 

DIANA: Ah, Michelle mira. Que hay?

MICHELLE: What? What? Ah crap.

DIANA: Michelle!

MICHELLE: Sorry.

 

DAN: But actually the line doesn’t look too long today. Sometimes they have to wait outside for an hour or more.  When it’s raining hard, sometimes they cancel visiting hours altogether.

While Diana parks the car, she sends Michelle ahead to find the last person in line, and grab the spot behind them.

 

MICHELLE: Which way should I go out?

DIANA: That way! Remember to ask who is the last person, okay?

MICHELLE: Okay, they’re going in already.

DIANA: Yeah, yeah. Remember to ask who is the last person!

MICHELLE: Got it, got it, got it!

 

DAN: Seeing her husband go off to prison was a complete shock for Diana.

 

DIANA: When they took Edgar, it’s like he died. I know that was coming—Edgar is going to jail. But you’ll never be prepared. You’ll never.

 

DAN: Edgar had left her with tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt. He’d used her cards to buy supplies for Three Happy Cows. She had to declare bankruptcy. Her credit was destroyed.

Another thing hanging over them: The judge has ordered Edgar to pay one point five million dollars to insurance companies for the damage the fire caused. He’s supposed to start making payments after he gets out of prison.

Stuck with all this, Diana has dropped her plans to go back to school to become a counselor.  Instead she’s still cleaning houses.

She’s also trying to be there for two daughters. Michelle’s at home, and Alejandra, who’s nineteen now, is off at college. The toughest thing, she says, has been figuring out what to say to them.  

 

DIANA: That’s hard for me.Explain to a nine-years-old why daddy’s not home. That’s hard for me. Explain a nineteen-years-old how… how the daddy, the superhero, did that. And try to make her understand it was a mistake, he make a mistake.

 

DAN: Still, most days Diana can push aside thoughts about mistakes and failure. There’s just no point dwelling on it. And, she says there’s also no point in getting angry at her husband.

 

DIANA: It’s like, what can I get if I get angry? What can I get from that? Like more hard time? He is still the father, and he was before and he still being an excellent father, an excellent husband, and everything. He’s still like that. How you can hate a person like that?

 

DAN: I ask her if she wishes they’d never gotten involved in Three Happy Cows. She doesn’t want to think about that. She wants to talk about what they can learn from it.

 

DIANA: The biggest lesson is stop asking you all the time, why, why, why, why, why? That don’t take you anywhere. It’s not why happen, it’s, what is next? Okay, now I’m going to be more careful, now I’m going to be more smart, now I’m going to be this, now I’m going to be this. No, it’s like, “Oh from now on, I’m never gonna do that anymore. I’m not going to do—” No. Do it again, but now do it right. 

 

DAN: And that raises a question: what would doing it right look like?

One possible answer is back at  Diana and Edgar’s home. It’s a single-story brick house on a quiet block in Garland, a unpretentious suburb of Dallas.

There’s a room here in back of the house.  It used to be an open-air porch. Now it’s closed in.

Here in the room, I see a stainless steel vessel, almost as big as a person, with precise temperature controls to heat milk. The walls of this room are made from special materials that can handle high humidity. Around the corner, in the garage, there are half a dozen coolers.

It’s a miniature yogurt factory.

After everything Edgar and Diana have been through, after the FARC, failed partnerships, mental breakdowns, they’d be ready to give it another shot.

Edgar built all this during that last year of limbo, before he went to prison.  

 

DIANA: It’s going to be a good project. I know, for sure.

 

DAN: And in prison, he’s still working on his plan for this small-batch milk processing operation.

He laid it out for me. He’d turn twelve-hundred gallons of milk a month into drinkable yogurt, butter, ice cream, sold by subscription to six hundred fifty families.

He’s put together a twelve-page business plan; the final page estimates profits of around fifty thousand dollars a year.

 

EDGAR: And I start thinking, “Okay, you made fifty thousand dollar, you can live very well. You are not the rich people in the world, but you live well.”

 

DAN: The idea is, keep it small, simple, high quality. Don’t grow. And one other thing.

 

EDGAR:  My new plan is have only one partner: Diana.

 

DAN: But at the end of our interview as we’re standing out in the prison yard waiting for a guard to come and escort Edgar back to the compound where he lives, he mentions something else.

A few days ago he got a letter from the owner of a dairy that used to supply Three Happy Cows with organic milk. Some investors are interested in giving the dairy money to start making yogurt.

And the letter asked: Would Edgar be interested in working with them? He could even start now, advising them on what equipment to buy.

 

EDGAR: They told me they have two thousand four hundred cows for milking. It’s a lot of milk.

 

DAN: Two thousand four hundred cows. It’s a lot of milk, Edgar tells me.

When Edgar mentioned this to us, it seemed just like an afterthought.

The next day, though, was Diana and Michelle’s weekly visit.  And by then, apparently, the possibilities in that letter were growing in Edgar’s mind.

I rode back home with Diana and Michelle after their visit.  And Diana told me that they spent much of their time listening to Edgar talk about it.

 

 

DIANA: I just asked one question: “What do you think about the letter?” And he makes this long conversation, forty or fifty minutes, not stopping, what he can do with that. The project. Never stop.

DAN: He’s thinking about what he could do with this dairy operation.

DIANA: I just let him talk. You know, like, dream about it. Like, nothing of that is for real. It’s just, like thinking aloud I guess? He’s dreaming. He’s dreaming already. And this letter make him, like, dream more.

 

DAN: There are some very real problems with both of the futures that Edgar is spinning out in his mind. The home yogurt plant might end up taking years of work and never make much money. The big, twenty-four-hundred-cow dairy—that puts him back in the world of partners and investors and difficult compromises. And that’s a tough place for someone who admits he makes decisions with his heart more than his head.

Edgar won’t walk out of the Seagoville prison for another three years. So the two visions—Diana’s right. They’re not real. But they’re real enough. They give Edgar something to focus on.  

He can’t do the thing he loves right now.  He can’t mix the milk and the bacteria, tap the container to see if the yogurt has set just right. But imagining it, planning for a time when he can do it again. It gives him something  to hold onto.  

 

LISA: Dan Charles covers Food and Agriculture for NPR.

If you liked today’s show, you should check out all the other stories Dan and his colleagues are digging up in the world of food. You can find them by visiting NPR’s food blog, The Salt.

Coming up, we’ll have scenes from the next episode of StartUp, after these words from our sponsors.

 

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LISA: In next week’s episode of StartUp, when you’re running a struggling business and doing everything you can to keep it alive, sometimes the things that hurt the company are completely out of your control.

 

WOMAN: You as the business owner had nothing to do with it. You didn’t play a role in it. You, you know, your business didn’t play a role in it. It just happens. But it comes up anytime somebody said, “Oh is this the place that guy got murdered?”

 

LISA: We’ll take a look at a business address with a troubled history. That’s coming up next week.

One last thing: Reply All, another Gimlet show, is looking to hire a fall intern. So if you’re aching to make great stories and want to join a creative, hard-working team, you should apply. The deadline is July 13th. You can find out more by visiting their website at ReplyAll.soy

 

Today’s episode of StartUp was produced by Bruce Wallace.

It was edited by Alex Blumberg, Peter Clowney, Molly Messick, Kaitlin Roberts, Luke Malone and Simone Polanen.

Thanks to Marc Gilman for his help with the episode.

Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. Additional music from Kevin Sparks, Takstar, Tyler Strickland, Marley Carroll and the band Hot Moms Dot Gov.

Matthew Boll mixed the episode.   

To subscribe to the podcast, go to iTunes, or check out the Gimlet Media website: GimletMedia.com. You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

 

We do our best to make sure these transcripts are accurate. If you would like to quote from an episode of StartUp, please check the transcript with the corresponding audio.

 

 

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