Going bananas for Yonanas

FIU alumni invented a kitchen appliance that provides a healthy alternative to ice cream. Now their cool invention is hotter than a South Florida summer day.

 “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” — Winston Churchill

Eileen McHale ’93 loves ice cream. Butter pecan. Strawberry. Her favorite is mint chocolate chip. She enjoys the entire sensory experience: the taste, consistency, temperature. Problem is, it doesn’t love her back.

Most of us in that situation would move on and focus our affections on an existing alternative. But not McHale. She and husband Brian Machovina ’91, MS ’94, both College of Arts & Sciences alumni, saw an opportunity to develop an alternative to the creamy indulgence. The couple created Yonanas, a kitchen appliance that turns bananas and other fruits into frozen yogurt. The treat has the same nutrition of fresh fruit, no additives and 100 calories per serving. Included with every purchase is a free recipe book. The recipes range from cookies and cream to tropical sorbet, but the constant in most but not all of the recipes is bananas.

The innovation is gaining fans quickly, and 2011 was its break-out year. The appliance is now sold at Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, K-Mart, Sears, Amazon and the Home Shopping Network. More than 200,000 units have been sold since May 2011. Tony Horton, the creator of fitness routine P90X has endorsed it.

Yonanas was selected by Good Housekeeping as one of its VIP (Very Innovative Products) Award winners. The honor enables the team to put the Good Housekeeping VIP sticker on retail boxes for the next year. A Good Housekeeping press release announcing the winners said, “Our VIP Award winners are products that are ingenious breakthroughs and solve everyday problems in new and exciting ways.”

In mid-November it was announced that Dole Food Company had become an equity investor in their company, Healthy Foods, LLC. (The corporate giant initially approached them via Facebook.) The collaboration with Dole will increase distribution of the treat-maker as “Dole-Yonanas” in the U.S., Europe, Asia, South America, Australia and the Middle East in the next three years. It will also help develop a commercial version of the appliance for schools, universities and restaurants.

These are heady times for the high school sweethearts, who have been together for 25 years and married for the last 17.

“We’re amazed at how successful Yonanas has been in just eight months,” Machovina said. “It has taken off like a rocket ship. It’s truly incredible. We’re blessed to be where we are.”

Like many “overnight” successes, this one was years in the making.

“Don’t be too optimistic. The light at the end of the tunnel may be another train.” — Anonymous

Ohio natives, Machovina and McHale moved to California 15 years ago to create Oasis Preserve International, a non-profit that supported rainforest conservation projects in Costa Rica, Panama and Peru. The pair eventually moved on to pursue other entrepreneurial endeavors.

For the next seven years, they were involved with three other companies that sold natural tea, lobbied for water conservation and restoration, and imported and distributed international organic food and medicines.

“Having lived on the West Coast for over ten years, we were exposed to a lifestyle culture where healthy food and active living is important,” says McHale, whose FIU degree is in environmental studies. “That definitely influenced our business endeavors.”

In 2004, Machovina created the initial drawings of Yonanas on Adobe Illustrator. At the time, the couple was busy with other projects that prevented him from developing it further.

Placing the concept on the backburner, the duo started Nui, LLC in 2006. The health-centered, children’s lifestyle company produced nutritional water, a book series and an animated website for kids. The company was holding its own – until the recession hit.

“That was a really difficult time for us, but it taught us that when you get knocked down, you need to get back up again,” Machovina says.

Adds McHale, “We have such trust in each other as people and business partners that we were able to weather the storm.”

“My sun sets to rise again.” — Robert Browning

Armed with the eternal optimism of entrepreneurs, the couple turned their attention back to their unfinished product. In 2009, they turned Machovina’s drawings over to Winston Breeden, a friend and CEO of Winston Products, LLC. Their engineers created the formal drawings and plans needed to move forward.

In the meantime, Machovina, whose bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in biological sciences, returned to FIU in 2010 to finish the doctorate degree he had started nearly 16 years ago. His research seeks to identify where bananas should be planted to maximize their production and minimize effects on the environment and human health.

“I’m interested in food security and, specifically, bananas because I’d feel guilty if we drove up banana consumption and didn’t give back what we take,” Machovina says, referencing the fact that many Yonanas recipes call for bananas. “Agriculture can have negative effects on the environment. I’d hate to be responsible for that. It’s a personal motivation.”

Machovina says he’d like to work ultimately with a university or government agency to promote the understanding of, and create solutions for, food security.

“Most students that have been as successful as he has wouldn’t bother returning to school,” says Jennifer Gebelein, research professor in the Department of Earth & Environment and a member of Machovina’s Ph.D. committee. “He values education that much. He’s a great example of someone who is marrying his education with business.”

“The point of living, and of being an optimist, is to be foolish enough to believe the best is yet to come.” — Peter Ustinov

While Machovina works on his doctorate, McHale travels back and forth between Florida and Ohio, where Healthy Foods, Inc., has its headquarters. As the spokesperson for Yonanas, she oversees its communications and marketing operations.

“People thought we were crazy, and we’d end up hating each other. But we’re great friends and honest with each other There’s no one I trust more,” says McHale. “We complement each other with what we bring to the table.”

Says Machovina, “We both love healthy food, experiencing new cultures and promoting environmental issues. Hopefully, we can find a path that enables us to follow our passions, have fun and make a difference. It’s tough to predict the direction of that path, but that’s what makes life an adventure.”