The short version goes like this: Once upon a time, Americans ate super-sweet yogurt loaded with artificial preservatives and shiny neon fruit. Sometimes kids even drank the stuff down in hermetically sealed tubes.
That began to change in the mid-2000s when Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish cheese-maker living in New York, bought an old Kraft Foods plant upstate with the intent to turn Americans onto Greek yogurt–a healthier, less unadulterated version of the stuff consumers were already slurping down. So, as Ulukaya tells it, he spent 18 months learning everything he could about it, tracking down a Goldilocks-ian recipe that, with any luck, could tickle all the right nodes on the American flavor palate.
In 2007, Chobani opened for business.
And wouldn’t you know it: Ulukaya’s plan worked. Today Chobani is worth somewhere in the ballpark of $2.5 billion to $5 billion, with Greek yogurt usurping some 36% of the American yogurt market. In 2013, the company sold more than $1 billion worth of Greek yogurt. And as of today, Chobani is looking to expand beyond the white fruit cups that made it famous.
On Tuesday, Chobani announced that it was opening a food incubator in New York City. If you’re unsure what a food incubator is exactly, it’s kind of like its tech-world cousin, a Y Combinator but for ambitious food businesses looking to scale. (The concept isn’t new, either; the New York Times documented similar incubators like the Food Innovation Center at Rutgers University way back in 2010.)
“Good food for all is the new tech,” Ulukaya explains to me over the phone. “This has been in my mind for the longest time—for a couple of years now. I would go out there and talk to [food] entrepreneurs, and the questions they would ask were all very, very similar.”
If your food startup is one of the 10-or-so selected when the company starts taking pitches in December (this number is in flux, I’m told), Chobani will provide your business with test kitchens, office space, mentorship, and access to the company’s resources like chefs and businesspeople to help you get you off the ground and running.
And what makes a good candidate? “I have four things: Number one it has to be delicious,” Ulukaya says with a laugh. “It has to natural. It has to be nutritious. And it has to be accessible”—meaning it has to have potential for broad, Greek yogurt-like mass appeal.
With a $2 million budget for this first round, the idea is to find the next big-ticket food item ripe for commercialization, whether that’s horchata, artisanal ice cream, or maybe even artisanal, horchata-flavored ice cream. Chobani is essentially looking for the next Chobani—whatever form it takes.
It’s a smart and relatively low-cost business strategy with the potential for a handsome payoff. Ulukaya was mum when asked about what kind of ROI Chobani is expecting in the short-term. But he insists that this initial round is intended to lay the groundwork for future investments; startups that he hopes will help Chobani carry out his grander vision. “What we want to do is create a broader conversation about good food for all,” he says. “That’s what I believe the food for tomorrow is . . . We hope these [startups] will be pioneers.”
In other words: Chobani wants to become a multi-pronged company like Kraft or PepsiCo, but with something resembling a conscience.