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An immigrant´s dream come true – the story behind America´s favourite yoghurt

An immigrant´s dream come true – the story behind America´s favourite yoghurt


Just a little over ten years ago, a new brand of yoghurt hit American supermarket shelves, which immediately took the country by storm. Customers discovered Chobani, a Greek style yoghurt that contained natural ingredients and was rich in flavour.  How Chobani managed to dominate the yoghurt market in less than ten years is due to the determination of one ambitious Turkish immigrant.  Hamdi Ulukaya grew up in a Kurdish region in eastern Turkey, where every day he milked sheep and ate yoghurt as a staple. In the mid-1990s, he moved to the United States in order to improve his English. While studying in upstate New York at the University of Albany, his father came to visit, but he was disappointed by the quality of feta cheese and yoghurt available in the stores, which gave Ulukaya an idea.

He saw there was potential in producing high quality Greek style yoghurt. In other words, yoghurt that has been strained in order to remove the whey. After doing extensive research and testing, in 2005 with the aid of a business loan, he purchased a manufacturing plant in New Berlin NY. Together with this business partner, it took them at least 18 months to create the ideal recipe. The next step was to give the product a name. Ulukaya came up with Chobani, which comes from the Turkish word çoban, meaning shepherd. When the product was first launched, Ulukaya decided that the product should be available in both high end and mass retail outlets.

In the eyes of customers, Chobani is considered a premium product, yet it is reasonably priced. In order to better gauge customer preferences, in 2012 the company set up a Chobani café in the swank Manhattan district of SoHo, where one can purchase yoghurts containing a variety of exotic ingredients. What makes the product unique is its high protein content, which has proven popular with diet-conscious consumers. According to Bloomberg, Greek yogurt such Chobani now accounts for 30% of $6.5 billion USD in total yoghurt sales. Ulukaya himself is worth an estimated $1.82 billion USD, but according to the National Review, he has pledged to give away half of his wealth. In 2014, he donated $2 million USD in order to support refugees in Syria and Iraq fleeing from ISIS. In Chobani´s two manufacturing plants, at least one third of the workers are refugees. Ulukaya has also encouraged other US companies to follow his example. In interviews, he has discussed that as an immigrant himself, he understands the importance of what work means to someone escaping difficult circumstances.

Ulukaya frequently demonstrates his appreciation for the company´s 2000 employees. In late April it was announced that all of Chobani´s employees, if the company is sold or goes public, would be entitled to a 10% stake in the company in the forms of shares.  While informing his staff of the news, he noted: “Without every single one of you, this couldn’t have been done.” 

What is clear to anyone following Chobani´s rise is that Ulukaya injects his passion into every pot of yoghurt and says it was his dream to create a “real good simple yoghurt”. The figures speak for themselves, one´s man vision has built an empire.