Hamdi Ulukaya's story of how he founded Chobani is legendary in the natural products startup community. After moving to New York from Turkey, he missed the thick, creamy, Greek-style yogurt found in his home country, and thought a lot about bringing this tasty, healthy staple to the U.S. When he stumbled upon an ad for a closed yogurt plant, he felt it was a sign to take the plunge. He bought the factory, employed a skeleton team of five people and spent two years formulating the perfect spoonable snack. Twelve years later, Chobani is a $2 billion company and the leading Greek yogurt maker in the U.S.
Ulukaya’s journey of growing a brand into a household name is the entrepreneurial dream. But it's tough work, and not without its trials and tribulations. To pay it forward, last year Chobani launched a four-month long food incubator that offers life-changing $25,000 grants (read: not investments) to six mission-driven food companies committed to making healthy food more accessible, more environmentally friendly and more socially impactful. Now in its second year, Chobani’s Food Incubator is currently accepting applications until Sunday, June 4 at 11:59 p.m. EDT for the program taking place in New York City from September 2017 to December 2017.
Interested in applying? Here, incubator director Jackie Miller and Chobani incubator participant Ann Yang, cofounder of MisFit Juicery, give us the scoop on program details and how to write a successful application.
How many brands will Chobani be accepting?
Jackie Miller: We’re looking for six companies for the next class. Specifically, we’re looking for early stage food and beverage product companies.
Chobani is offering a $25,000 grant to grow businesses without taking any equity. Why is Chobani conducting an incubator if there isn’t a clear monetary incentive for the brand?
JM: I think that’s definitely one of the key differentiators for us. This program is born out of our founder Hamdi Ulukaya’s vision. The incubator is very founder friendly: it’s equity free, and has no strings attached. This program is designed to help food entrepreneurs scale up their companies.
For Chobani, it’s about impacting the food system in the U.S. as a whole. The companies we look for follow our “D.N.N.A.” food philosophy—delicious, nutritious, natural and affordable. The key differentiator in the focus of our program is helping these types of companies grow. Our motto is “Better Food For More People."
What kind companies are you looking for to be a part of the program? Should they be nationally distributed?
JM: When we say early stage, for us that means brands should have a minimum of product in the market with a little traction. They don’t need national distribution, but they should be selling their product with good feedback from retailers and customers.
For example, Banza was in the first class of our incubator and they already had a dozen employees. We think there is some great peer mentorship that comes out of the program. While Chobani offers a lot of access to our top leaders and network of investors and experts, we recognize mentorship is also highly valuable from someone that’s just a few steps ahead of you.
In short, we’re interested in innovative and purpose-driven companies solving problems we care about.
Ann, what was the value of mentorship during your time in the Chobani incubator?
Ann Yang: To summarize, it was absolutely fantastic. It was one of the best things that happened to my company. The first level is understanding how Chobani has been able to use good food practices to scale, and what that looks like. You’re talking to people who are really the best of the best in the [food] industry, and you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it.
On the second level, peer mentorship within the incubator is reflective of the larger work culture at Chobani. It’s a collaborative environment because we’re all operating in a space where there are many broken aspects of the food system. We’re still in touch with the team members and founders and talk often.
The incubator also showed us what kind of company we want to run. At Chobani, everyone from the manufacturing employees to the person managing brand production to the brand manager are bringing success for the company. That familial feeling is very rare and very special.
What were the greatest gains you experienced with your business by participating in the program?
AY: Chobani helped us understand the order of operations and what to prioritize in our business to scale in a meaningful way. When we were entering the food incubator, we were getting ourselves ready to scale into regional and national retail. Chobani's head of product development helped us with flavor formulations. He helped us identify the best flavor profiles to launch. We also received advice on how to authentically communicate our company mission as we continue to grow.
In what ways, if any, does the incubator promote diversity within the natural products industry?
JM: This is a personal priority for me. We’re particularly interested in companies founded by women or by people of color. We believe that it's important for us to get out of our corner and host networking events across the country: in New York City, in Boulder and in San Francisco. We’re tapping into small accelerators around the nation to spread the word about our program, from New Orleans to Los Angeles.
The Chobani incubator is all about solving problems. When you have diverse perspectives, it’s easier to solve these problems. This is our top priority.
Any tips you have for companies interested in applying to the program that will help them get accepted?
JM: I encourage people to tell their personal story. What motivated them to start their company? What problems and solutions are they working on? Ultimately, we are looking for passionate people.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.