It’s been a year since upstate upstart Chobani surpassed Dannon to become the number one yogurt manufacturer in the country, and the Greek-style yogurt outfit credits its prosperity to a single ingredient: “Having access to such quality milk is instrumental to our success,” says Nicki Briggs, Chobani director of communications.“Central New York has the best milk in the country.”
Launched without a pilot study or sales research, Chobani was instead born of one man’s craving. When Turkey native Hamdi Ulukaya immigrated to America to study business at SUNY Albany, he was dismayed at the lack of good yogurt and cheese in his supermarket. Sure, top-tier niche products could be found in specialty stores, but Ulukaya got inspired to bring high-quality, price-competitive dairy products to the mainstream market. When a flier for a recently shuttered Kraft plant south of Utica crossed his desk, he pounced. “He went to see it and bought it almost on the spot,” Briggs says.
This was 2005. Ulukaya set straight to work updating the 1920s-era building and meeting with area milk suppliers; by August 2007, when he brought his first half-pallet of samples here to Manhattan, he went back with orders from a few kosher groceries as well as from Fairway, D’Agostino and Fresh Direct. Chobani’s growth curve soon went vertical. (A year later, Greece-based Fage opened its first American plant—also in upstate New York, likewise lured by the proximity to both magnificent milk and tens of millions of hungry customers.)
Since then Chobani has gone from six employees to 900; from insignificant to industry leader. Today Chobani ships more than 500,000 cases per week. “It really flies off the shelves,” says Michael Sinatra, public affairs manager at Whole Foods Market. “Even though it’s available nationally now, it’s nice that it’s still a local product for us.”
To say it’s also nice for struggling upstate dairy farmers would be an extreme understatement. In an agricultural industry undergoing considerable economic hardship, the Greek yogurt boom is regarded as a godsend.
“[Chobani] uses almost 3 million pounds of milk daily,” says Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “This has allowed our upstate farmers to expand and grow.”
Photo credit: Heather Ainsworth for Chobani