SAN FRANCISCO — Barely a decade ago, Hamdi Ulukaya sold his first cup of Greek yogurt and helped create a multibillion-dollar category in the United States. Today, the founder and chief executive officer of Chobani is helping others launch food businesses through the Chobani Incubator.
|Jackie Miller, director of the Chobani Incubator
“He is what I call an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur,” said Jackie Miller, director of the Chobani Incubator. “It’s really not that long ago that he was in the trenches building Chobani, so he really knows better than anyone what it takes to get started.”
The Chobani Incubator was launched in October 2016 to mentor and support food and beverage start-ups. Participating companies are given a $25,000 grant to help grow the business, plus guidance from Chobani teams and top executives and experts. Programming covers brand and marketing, packaging and pricing, sales and retail strategy, innovation and manufacturing, food quality and safety, and nutrition and food labeling. Participants also have access to Chobani’s plants, research and development and sales offices throughout the country, as well as a dedicated incubator space based in the Chobani SoHo office in New York City.
So far, 13 companies have graduated from the program, including Banza, a maker of chickpea-based pasta; Misfit Juicery, a brand of beverages made with imperfect produce; and Snow Monkey, a producer of plant-based frozen dessert.
“Our mission has always been better food for more people,” said Ms. Miller, who was invited to speak about the program at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. “We know there’s a lot of great brands, especially many of the ones exhibiting at the Fancy Food Show, who check that box, so the ‘more people’ part of it is what we try to help them with. Getting their products in the hands of as many people, and for us that means scaling, growing everything from their operations to growing their teams and their marketing, to make as many people aware of what they’re doing as possible.”
The first group of companies participating in the Chobani Incubator already has achieved significant growth since graduating from the program at the end of 2016, Ms. Miller said.
“From our first class, they’ve experienced about 300% growth in distribution since the launch of the program ... which also contributed to doubling their revenue in 2017 year over year,” she said in an interview with Food Business News. “And we expect to see some similar stories coming out of our second class. It’s still early days; they just started the program in October and finished in December, so we’ll continue to track them and support them.”
Chobani receives no equity in exchange for its investments. Rather, Mr. Ulukaya views the project as an opportunity to “pay it forward” to other up-and-coming brands in the industry, Ms. Miller said. It’s also a learning experience for the company.
“We have engaged over 150 employees internally as mentors, and time and again we hear from the mentors on our team that working with these entrepreneurs who are so scrappy in their thinking is really inspiring and helpful for us,” Ms. Miller said. “We also learn about what’s happening in other categories and what are the unique challenges that emerging brands face. It’s almost like exercising a different muscle.
“We had over 550 companies apply to the most recent class, and we get a really good picture on trends and other innovations out there. We get to learn about what’s coming up in the food world.”
At the Winter Fancy Food Show, Ms. Miller planned to identify and encourage promising start-ups to apply for the next class beginning this spring. Companies may apply at chobaniincubator.com through Jan. 30.“We have been so thrilled to see this program grow, and the impact on these companies in terms of growth is a really great indication of how well it’s working, and how we want to continue on this path,” Ms. Miller said. “It absolutely remains a core part of brand and the work we’re doing.”