A student bikes 80 miles to see it made. People make cute cat videos with it to post online. We are talking, believe it or not, about yogurt—specifically Chobani Greek-style yogurt. In less than five years, the startup brand has muscled in on a category long dominated by powerhouses like the $1.3 billion Yoplait and $1.2 billion Dannon: In 2011, the New York-based Chobani generated a very healthy $650 million-plus in sales. "Everybody is looking for the magic answer," admits founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant who entered the food business when he bought an old Kraft dairy plant that was being shuttered. And he seems to have found it.
The dapper and trim accidental entrepreneur credits his success to "not knowing the old way of doing business." Unlike most upstart food makers, Ulukaya refused to limit Chobani to specialty stores and pushed major retailers to let him do product sampling rather than pay fees for shelf space. Because he didn't have money for advertising, he found an extra-large cup mold and chose a shiny label unlike anything in the dairy case. He introduced bold yogurt flavors such as pineapple and pomegranate. The moves cost more money—yet he simultaneously insisted on keeping the price lower than other Greek yogurts.
These counterintuitive plays have helped Chobani pop. Customers have been so expressive in sharing their crushes that Ulukaya built an ad campaign around them last year: "Chobani Love Stories" doubled sales. "We let customers define what Chobani was," he says. "It sounds good because we didn't create it—the consumer did." What he's trying to say is, please keep those cat videos coming.
Illustration by Jitesh Patel