Americans love a bit of culture - will the UK fall for Chobani yoghurt too?
The best-selling Chobani yoghurt – and its cool cafés – made its founder a billionaire in just six years
I'm sitting in a bar in Manhattan. The air is hot and heavy and every time I order it is to the backbeat thrum of an air conditioner. It's high summer.
My order comes quick and cool, and the heat drifts away momentarily. I order another – this time a peach confection. It's sweet and creamy and everything you don't want a cocktail to be. This is not, however, some alcoholic émigré from Magaluf. It's not even a drink, in fact. What it is, is a yoghurt – and a very nice one at that.
I am at the Chobani yoghurt bar on Prince Street in SoHo, a new concept to New York and one that, with luck, the company will bring to the UK when its yoghurts go on sale nationwide here this month. I say with luck, because the two creations I try – peach, lemon, honey and roasted almonds with creamy yoghurt and a savoury cucumber sea salt and fresh mint number – are models of loveliness.
And I'm not the only one who thinks so. The yoghurt – the biggest selling in the US – has attained a peculiar place in the American culture, as a quick look at Chobani's US Facebook or Twitter feed demonstrates. Users post pictures of themselves working their way through the SoHo bar's creations, and the 25 flavours in the supermarket range (priced here at 89p a pot). The accompanying comments range from the complimentary – "Coffee + dark choc chip AMAZING!!!" – to the hyperbolic "I vow that I will only eat #Chobani Greek yoghurt from now on". You half expect to see people declaring that they intend to name their firstborns after the stuff.
The level of passion is all the more unusual given that Chobani isn't some dusty American firm which people have grown up with – it is, in fact, only seven years old (it started trading six years ago). What accounts for the ardour then? What makes it different? First off, the ingredients. The 125 billion litres of milk the company used in 2012 was bought, in its entirety, from farm co-ops around its two factories in New Berlin, New York, and Twin Falls, Idaho.
This means Chobani is able to guarantee that its yoghurt contain no growth hormones; no preservatives; and is low-fat and contains no added sugar. The latter fact being eye-poppingly remarkable, given the industry's liking for adding mounds of sugar to products after it has extracted the fat (without it, so the thinking goes, food becomes unpalatable). Here, though, they don't need to – the straining (or "süzme") technique makes Chobani unusually creamy and thick. Still, though, ingredient lists, no matter how health-affirming, don't tend to, well, electrify people.
So what is it about Chobani in particular? I put the question to its development chef, Tim Reardon. After running through all the spiel about nutritional content and the yoghurt's versatility, he hits the nail on the head – "Hamdi's story".
For the foodie entrepreneur with his eye on the main chance, Chobani's founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a man to emulate. In just six years, his company has grown from six employees to 3,000; from surviving hand-to-mouth on US government small-business loans, to having a turnover of $1bn; and, along the way, given that terminal patient, the American dream, a much-needed shot in the arm.
When I meet Ulukaya in his offices around the corner from the yoghurt bar it is with a degree of trepidation. His staff speak of him as a sort of yoghurt prophet. So it is double surprise when I am introduced into the presence and find an easy-going man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a soft gaze. He couldn't be less like Gordon Gekko – but then his life hasn't been all Manhattan offices and yoghurt bars.
Ulukaya was born to a family of cheese and yoghurt makers in Ilic, 300 miles north of Ankara in Turkey. He initially wanted to be a journalist, but after writing an article critical of the government, he left for the US. "It was made clear to me that I needed to leave Turkey," he says. He arrived in the US in 1994 with $3,000 and set about studying English and business at the State University of New York.
His first foray into food came in 2002. His father, over for a visit, was unable to find good-quality feta cheese, so Ulukaya decided to make his own. The company, though modest, was quick to grow. So when in 2005 he saw an ad for a fully-equipped yoghurt factory, which Kraft was selling for a song in upstate New York, he visited out of curiosity.
After being shown around by the final employee left at the factory, Rich Lake, he had made up his mind. "I called my lawyer and bought it," he says. With the help of some grants from local development agencies, he employed Lake and four other former employees of the factory – and they set about creating the first Chobani yoghurt. It took them 18 months but they eventual hit on the formula of a strained yoghurt.
It is at this point that yoghurt master Mustafa Dogan enters stage left. As Ulukaya points out, "Only Mustafa, me and a few others know the combination of active cultures that give the yoghurt its taste. He is very important to the business," he says. Mustafa is a small, courtly man, who carries a pocketful of plastic spoons with which to taste the two kilos of yoghurt he eats daily. When I meet him in New Berlin we share some warm yoghurt and he explains how he makes it.
From the outset it was decided that it should not be organic (a decision for which they have since been criticised). Why? "Because we didn't want it to be expensive – we wanted everyone to buy it," says Mustafa.
Even so, the process is still time-consuming. To get that perfect viscosity they first skim off the fat from raw milk, pasteurise it, and then add Mustafa's blend of living cultures. After fermentation takes place, it's run through a whey separator (this is the point when other makers add thickening agents) and, hey presto, luscious yoghurt. "We add nothing to it – only take out the fat, because Americans don't like that," says Mustafa.
It appears he's pretty spot-on, given that his yoghurt now sells more than any other brand. It is not without its critics, however. While most locals in New Berlin are thankful for the rejuvenating effect Chobani has had on the economy, some whisper about the large lorries thundering down the small roads. And then there is the "toxic whey" issue. Chobani, along with a number of other yoghurt makers, was accused earlier this year of pumping the waste product from the straining process into rivers. The proof, however, is shaky and Chobani insists that the whey is, currently, made into fertiliser and sold to farmers.
The whey issue aside, there's no doubting the scale of Ulukaya's success. The two factories ship 19.2 million pots each week and Ulukaya is, according to Forbes, a billionaire. What advice, then, does this winner of Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year award have for other foodie start-ups? "First, stay true to your values, and persevere. Secondly, don't sell out – if you have control of the entire company, as I do at Chobani, you can make sure it grows in a way you like," says Ulukaya.
Wise counsel indeed. But a question still hangs in the air: can Ulukaya repeat his success here? It is, at this point, hard to tell. It may not have the novel air that accompanied its launch in America – after all, we are well-schooled in the joys of Greek yoghurt – but still, I, for one, wish it well. If only because I might be able to reprise my evening with that luscious peach confection – and this time a little closer to home.
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