Chobani’s CEO Wants You to Go With Your Gut
Just over a decade after Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya purchased his first yogurt factory, the company has risen to become one of America’s top-selling yogurts.
Ulukaya grew up in Eastern Turkey, in a nomadic family that raised goats and sheep. Now he’s changing how dairy producers do business by focusing on flavor, freshness, and social responsibility.
HUNTER LEWIS: You’ve been called Chobani’s chief taster. How much yogurt do you eat a week?
HAMDI ULUKAYA: Depends on where I am. If I’m in the office, I eat it because I like to eat it. If I’m doing a tasting, there are days [when I eat] 5 pounds.
And what goes through your mind when you’re trying a new product that is being developed?
Number one is, it’s got to be tasty. I also look for food memories. Every bite has to take you somewhere. That is what I try to do. I love apple pie, for example. I didn’t know about it before I got to the United States 20 years ago. I thought it was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. For years, I told my team let’s do apple pie. It wasn’t until recently that they nailed it.
What do you think the supermarket yogurt case will look like in five years?
It’ll be a lot simpler. You won’t see many brands. You won’t see any bad stuff in any products. You will see a lot of wholesomeness. And in the yogurt aisle you’ll a lot of plain. People will be into taking the plain base–this pure simple milk and cultures–and being creative at home.
You’ve been described as someone who trusts your gut. What should we know about gut health and probiotics?
Everything happens in the gut. The whole body’s functionality is the healthiness of the gut. And more and more research is coming out that those healthy bacteria prevent diseases. The healthiest way to preserve probiotics is in the form of yogurt, because it’s a great environment for them to grow.
What is Chobani’s social mission to you?
I don’t like check-the-box kind of stuff. I love being real. If you do it, you do it right, you do it real. I truly believe a business is the most effective change maker in today’s society – more than governments, more than NGOs, more than religious organizations. And it’s only effective if they really mean it. It’s not part of the profit. If you have strong beliefs and it’s in your DNA, then it will make a huge impact.
Do you think food businesses will be able to survive if they don’t have a good social mission at the core?
No. No company will survive. Today’s consumer knows who is doing it authentically and who is pretending.
How do you define healthy?
Simple ingredients. No chemicals. No ingredients that you don’t [recognize]. Healthy means it makes you feel good. You feel good about it. Healthy is safe, as is food safety. I worry about food safety more than anything else. People solve that problem by putting preservatives in there; they don’t have to worry about food safety. When you make natural food, food safety is extremely important.