The Chobani Story

In a classic piece of outstanding food writing from the New Yorker food issue 2013 Rebecca Mead narrates the entrepreneurial story behind Chobani Yogurt, the US' leading ("Greek") yogurt brand, and its founder Hamdi Ulukaya, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey.

Not only does Mead describe the rapid rise of the company, the brand ('çoban' means 'shepherd' in Turkish) and of the entrepreneur behind its success, she also presents a short history of the commercial market for yogurt in the US, where - in pre-Chobani times - yogurt was almost exclusively perceived & consumed as a dessert.

Mead writes that "The closer that yogurt has come to resemble junk food the faster consumption has grown: by 2005, the average American was eating about ten pints of yogurt a year, fi􀈩v (!) times the consumption of 1980." Still, yogurt was somewhat retaining the image of a sort of health food.

What became popular with the success of Chobani and is referred to in the US as "Greek" is strained yogurt (i.e. the milk solids separated from the whey) which has a higher protein content. Ironically, in Greece the strained product is not even called yogurt but "straggisto", in Ulukaya's native Turkey it goes under the name "süzme yoğurt".

Hamdi Ulukaya talking about his favorite ways with yogurt

Mead concludes that "With Chobani, Ulukaya has transformed a product with a distinctly ethnic identity into an entirely American product [...]". Certain foods - be it a product, an ingredient, a dish - which were once only consumed & appreciated by a small (ethnic) minority, a "taste community" so to speak, become adapted to & adopted by mainstream taste.

Ulukaya himself is quite a well known figure in the US, much less so in his native Turkey and all those countries where Chobani products are not to be found on supermarket shelves.

As a recognition of Ulukaya's impressive track record as an entrepreneur as much as for his business ethics the global audit & consulting company Ernst&Yound awarded him as EY's Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 in the US and globally in 2013.

It was also in 2013, shortly after the piece for the New Yorker, that Ulukaya faced a first serious challenge to his immaculate reputation as a sincere & responsible entrepreneur: Chobani had to recall an undisclosed number of production batches after over 200 consumers complaints to the FDA when consumers were experiencing stomach pains and nausea after the consumption of Chobani products.

In recent months his employment practices (up to up to 30% of the workforce at his plants are refugees some of which are Muslim) aroused the fury of the alt-right media supporting the Trump camp.

In April 2016, Ulukaya informed his 2.000+ employees that he is going to make them partners by awarding them 10% of the ownership of the company with annual sales beyond 1bn USD, which could potentially make some of its most senior, tenured employees 'yogurt millionaires'

While highly pragmatic & realistic when it comes to his business, Ulukaya seems to take good corporate citizenship very seriously. 10% of profits go to charity, some more into nutrition research and the Chobani foundation engages with the community & small businesses. The Chobani food incubator supports startups "trying to fix broken food systems".

Read Rebecca Mead's entire piece (including her search for the best yogurt in Greece's Peloponnese) here.

For anybody interested in food practices and great journalism the yearly New Yorker Food Issue is a must-read: well-researched portraits of food personalities which look beyond the public facades, food & lifestyle fashions & fads investigated and problematized,...

Highly recommended by hep.!

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