At Chobani, the Turkish King of Greek Yogurt
amdi Ulukaya sits in a restaurant in upstate New York, waggling a rolled-up slice of pizza, making bombastic pronouncements about yogurt. As the founder and chief executive of Chobani, the brand of Greek yogurt that has stormed the stainless steel refrigerators of coconut water drinkers and ancient grain eaters, he has some standing in the matter, although he’s actually Turkish.
The yogurt that most Americans ate for decades was a travesty, in his view: too thin, too sweet, too fake. “So horrible,” he says in his Turkish accent, his eyes bright against a lean face. “Terrible.” As he sees it, we were all snookered by big food companies that cared little for our taste buds or health. Greek yogurt’s high protein content makes it more filling, and it contains little or no fat. His doesn’t have preservatives, either. “There is no reason for us to put preservatives in the food,” Ulukaya says. “I would say to the big guys, ‘Watch out. You’d better change your ways. The consumer knows now, and the consumer will punish you if you don’t do the right thing.’?”
He has kind words for one competitor, albeit briefly. Fage, the Athens-based company that first brought Greek yogurt to the U.S. 15 years ago, “makes great yogurt,” he says. But when I start writing that down, he almost jumps out of his chair. “No, no, no,” he says, “Fage does not make great yogurt.” Then he laughs.
He can afford to pass out compliments. Chobani has made Ulukaya a billionaire, according to Bloomberg data. Five years ago Chobani had almost no revenue. This year, the company will sell more than $1 billion worth of yogurt, says Ulukaya, who’s the sole owner. Once a niche business, Greek yogurt now accounts for 36 percent of the $6.5 billion in total U.S. yogurt sales, according to investment firm AllianceBernstein (AB). Upstate New York, with its 28 plants owned by Chobani, Fage, Yoplait maker General Mills (GIS), and others, has become something like the Silicon Valley of yogurt.
But buried in the (admittedly GREAT) article is another sobering reminder of what you might call “The New York Mentality”‘s limitations…
…As orders rose to 1.2 million cases a week in 2011, Chobani found it harder to get enough milk. Because milk prices are largely controlled by the federal government, New York dairy farmers are reluctant to spend on herd expansions. Ulukaya wanted to branch out into different flavors and packages, but his sole plant was going all-out just to make enough product. In December, Ulukaya and Idaho Governor Butch Otter dedicated a $450 million plant in Twin Falls. At around a million square feet, it’s the largest yogurt plant in the world, Ulukaya says.
It will draw on an abundant milk supply; Idaho in recent years passed New York to become the third-largest milk-producing state.
The plant has the capacity to produce at least 1 million cases of yogurt weekly, many of them new products such as 3.5-oz. servings called Bites.
You stand still scratching your feds and the world will pass you by ~ New York (in all fairness, California, too) just hasn’t caught on, for all the air of worldly cleverness they wrap themselves in.
It’s a great, delicious American story.
A note for Greek yogurt lovers or those just entering the fray ~ part of the Chobani attraction besides the amazing taste and consistency is the presence of some pretty potent probiotics, ensuring a well rounded, amazingly healthy little cup o’ yum. They haven’t been stripped out in the manufacturing process in order to make a more shelf stable or palatable to the American tongue product. However, with the BIG guys entering the ring now, smelling dollars to be made (I mean Dannon, etc.) there ARE “Greek” yogurts just hitting shelves which are pale imitations of the authentic. Stonyfield organic, which owns Oikos, has sold out their name to be shared with Dannon (BOTH of which are in dairy cases so far) and, if you compare the two labels, the original Stoneyfield Oikos is brimming with all the bacillus and the Dannon cup reads like any other homogeneous cup of mass produced glop.