It wasn’t long ago that old Greek grannies lined up in front of big plastic barrels to have Greek yogurt ladled to them from a large metal spoon. Now, everyone from soccer moms to skinny jean-wearing hipsters can find it in local trendy yogurt bars—as common as kale chips and coconut water.
“I find it ironic and funny that Americans are into Greek yogurt when the only authentic and tasty yogurt I know is the one my mother makes from scratch that she wraps in wool blankets for hours,” second generation Greek Stephanie Tzanateas, 40, of Ridgewood, N.J. said. “That’s authentic Greek yogurt to me.”
Greek yogurt—a strained, plain yogurt native to Mediterranean countries like Greece, Turkey and Lebanon—was introduced to the U.S. market 15 years ago when the Athens based dairy company, Fage, opened its first American plant. These yogurts were sold at ethnic, specialty supermarkets to a niche market of mostly Mediterranean and Middle Eastern customers. The general public didn’t appreciate Greek yogurt back then.
Today, Greek yogurt brands are dominating refrigerator shelves of mainstream supermarkets and convenience stores across the nation. Embracing Greek yogurt as an essential part of a healthy diet, consumers are enamored by its thick, creamy texture and high nutritional content. No longer a niche business, U.S. yogurt consumption per capita has more than doubled in the past decade
with Greek yogurt now accounting for 36 percent of the $6.5 billion total U.S. yogurt sales.
And it’s thanks to the man who popularized it: Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani Greek Yogurt—America’s number one yogurt brand.
“Chobani hit the jackpot,” Nikos Iatrou, 33, of the Lower East Side said. “And Fage missed an opportunity to market its product. And to be honest, Fage has been in the business far longer than Chobani. It’s a matter of falling behind in the game, like Microsoft and Apple. You snooze, you lose.”
After immigrating to the U.S. from Turkey in the ‘90s, Ulukaya realized the vast opportunities in bringing Greek yogurt to the attention of American consumers. By marketing its many health benefits on a mass level—all-natural, live cultures, gelatin free, high protein, low fat—Ulukaya succeeded in growing his startup yogurt company into America’s top selling yogurt brand.
For Sam Karamouzis, 70, of Bayside, Queens, owner of International Grocery in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, which sells Greek yogurt the traditional way, the Chobani Greek yogurt craze has not been thrilling news but it hasn’t been surprising either.
“People like Greek yogurt because of the live cultures and because it’s natural,” Karamouzis said. “I’ve been selling Greek yogurt out of this plastic barrel for over 10 years. But I guess Chobani spread the word.”
This past summer, Chobani opened its first yogurt bar in Manhattan’s Soho for customers to enjoy plain Chobani yogurt with Mediterranean inspired toppings (honey, olive oil, cucumber, fig, mint, pistachios), a very new concept in America. Along with its nutritional qualities and exotic fruit flavors to chose from, Chobani has not only popularized Greek yogurt and the Chobani brand but it has changed consumer mentality about how to eat yogurt.
“Chobani is catering to a wide variety of demographics, young, young at heart, metropolitan, cosmopolitan, international, health-savvy and fashionable consumers,” Thalia Loffredo, 49, of Soho, Manhattan, a former restaurateur and inquisitive foodie said. The addition of the yogurt bar to the neighborhood has been exciting for her family, having been huge fans of Chobani yogurt at home.
“They have an excellent product and with the rise in Greek yogurt consumption nationwide, it’s probably only a matter of time until they expand the yogurt bar concept to other markets,” Loffredo continued. “I even noticed at our local grocery store that some of the yogurt bar combos are being packaged as “Chobani Flips” with the yogurt on one side of the container and the toppings on the other side.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it would implement a pilot program that would place Greek yogurt in school cafeterias as early as April 2013. Chobani, Fage, Alpina and Muller Quaker will be included in this new meal program.