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Inside Chobani’s massive, sustainable new innovation center

The yogurt company just opened an 85,000-square-foot office building and food science lab.

Yogurt giant Chobani has made it a practice to hire refugees to work at its manufacturing plants. As anti-immigrant rhetoric has soared, Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya reportedly received death threats for the practice (both of the company’s plants are in conservative areas), despite creating new jobs with solid benefits in communities that could use them.

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Now the company is doubling down on retaining its growing workforce at its Twin Falls, Idaho, plant by giving those employees a massive innovation and community center that adjoins the world’s largest yogurt plant. In doing so, Chobani joins the ranks of companies creating shiny new spaces for workers. The 71,000-square-foot edifice is topped with a 14,000-square-foot research and development lab with a full test kitchen to help spur more yogurt innovations.

Unlike some of the walled gardens created by tech companies, it’s meant to be a shared space for both the community and the people actually making its products: workers at the adjoining yogurt plant. The angular, three-story building is flanked by two open courtyards. It’s been designed with enough sustainable features to hopefully meet LEED silver certification.

[Photo: courtesy Chobani]

“We wanted to build a beautiful home for our employees and our plant workers where they could feel comfortable and welcomed and eat a good meal,” says Peter McGuinness, the company’s chief marketing officer. “Within that, we wanted to integrate R&D and innovation into the operations of the plant. And then we wanted to create a place where anyone can come, so it acts as a community center.”

There’s a spacious gym, cafeteria, and lounge areas. The company is still vague about exactly what kind of community programming might happen there but suggests it could be a good spot for town halls and music events. The space features low-flow water fixtures, resilient native plant landscaping, LED lighting, and a 30,000-square-foot reflective roof to reduce cooling costs.

[Photo: courtesy Chobani]
The building is wrapped in “smart glass” windows that tint automatically to reduce glare, passively boost cooling, and allow for more natural lighting. The result is a facility that will require 30% less water than similar space, and 25% less energy. The company claims to have reused more than 50% of its construction waste to keep it out of landfills.

Chobani built the enormous yogurt plant—more than one million square feet—in Twin Falls in 2013. The company says that it brought 700 jobs to the area and that it contributes indirectly to the sustainability of another 8,000. Since 2012, the unemployment rate in the area has dropped from nearly 7% to just under 3%.

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[Photo: courtesy Chobani]

The new space symbolizes CEO Ulukaya’s efforts to build an inclusive and empowered workforce. Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, has been proactive about paying fair wages and hiring refugees (despite protests from the local community). The company offers paid parental leave, and Ulukaya has previously given employees shares of his stake in the company. This year, Chobani paid all of the school-lunch debt for students in Twin Falls and continued a partnership with nonprofit Wholesome Wave to increase the amount of healthy foods—especially fruits, vegetables, and yogurt—that people who are food-insecure or have nutrition-related health issues have access to.

Over the last year, the company has continued to launch dozens of offerings, including a nondairy line of coconut-based yogurts and others featuring nut butters, mix-in toppings for kids, and reduced sugar. McGuinness says that the new R&D area will give the company “a lot of the innovation and equipment . . . to go beyond yogurt,” although he declined to specify what’s next.

Regardless, they’ll be relying on the workers in Twin Falls to produce it. “This was really to celebrate our employees and our plant workers and make them as comfortable and safe, and as energized and well fed, as possible,” McGuinness says.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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