A Story For The 4th Of July

Once upon a time there was a shepherd boy, a Kurd living in Turkey.  His family owned live stock and made feta cheese and Greek yogurt which they sold to support themselves.  It was a semi-nomadic life, moving the cows between Summer and Winter pastures.  Our shepherd boy doesn’t know his exact birthday as he was born while the family was on the move to warm weather mountain pastures.

His family and he himself were well aware of Turkish oppression of the Kurds.  So when he was old enough his father suggested he go to study and learn to speak English in America.

Our shepherd, Hamdi Ulukaya came to the U.S. in 1994, studied English and took a few business courses as well.  He first attended Adelphi College on Long Island and then transferred to the State University of New York in upstate Albany.

He ended up taking a job on an upstate farm. During a visit, his father persuaded Ulukaya to import the family’s feta cheese from Turkey, after tasting the inferior cheese available locally. When the imported cheese proved popular, Ulukaya opened a small wholesale feta cheese plant of his own, called Euphrates, in Johnstown, New York in 2002.  The venture was modestly successful but by the two-year mark it had just barely broken even.

In the spring of 2005, Ulukaya noticed a piece of junk mail advertising a fully equipped yogurt factory for sale in South Edmeston, New York, 65 miles (105 km) west of his feta cheese factory.  The 84-year-old factory had been closed by Kraft Foods.  Although he initially threw the flier away, Ulukaya toured the plant the following day and decided to buy it.

“On the drive home I called my attorney, who is my main business adviser. I told him I wanted to buy the factory. He thought it was a terrible idea. He had three good arguments: First, because I’d be buying it “as is,” I really had no idea how well it would function. Second, Kraft is a pretty successful company, and if it was giving up on this facility, this town, and the yogurt industry, maybe it knew something I didn’t. Third, and maybe the strongest objection, where was I going to get that kind of money? He was right: At that point, I had nowhere near enough money for such a big purchase.”

Enter a couple of bankers who pointed him to the Small Business Administration.  Our shepherd quickly wrote a business plan, put down 10%, personally guaranteed the obligation and voila, Ulukaya owned a yogurt plant that Kraft didn’t want anymore.

“The factory was a sad place, sort of like a cemetery, in a very small town. Fifty-five employees were preparing to shut it down. A lot of equipment was included, but it was old. The best thing about the place was the price: less than $1 million. Some of the individual machines would cost more than that if purchased new.”

He immediately hired a master yogurt maker from Turkey, and spent the next two years perfecting his recipe. He hired four employees who’d worked at the Kraft plant, and because they had nothing to produce, kept them busy repainting and repairing the factory for a few months.

By 2007 he was ready to go to market with a new brand of yogurt; he named it Chobani, Turkish for “shepherd.”  It was a crucial part of the business plan that Chobani be sold in mainstream supermarkets, in the dairy aisle as opposed to the gourmet foods area; no boutique specialty stores.  And it had a different European container – not tall and thin like watery, sugary American yogurt of the time but in a flat, wide container making it stand out and letting the customer know this product was different from the yogurt they were used to buying.

“Often when a start-up launches a product, there’s an agonizing wait to see if customers will buy it. We didn’t have that problem. Within a couple of weeks after Chobani got into ShopRite, we started getting orders for 5,000 cases. The first time we received one, I kept double-checking to make sure it didn’t say 500. It quickly became clear that our biggest challenge wasn’t going to be selling enough yogurt—it was going to be making enough yogurt.”

Today the company produces millions of  cases of yogurt a week in it’s New York and Idaho plants and the business is still growing. More importantly, Chobani pays employees above the minimum wage and offers full-time employees health benefits and other benefits. Early on, Mr. Ulukaya established a 401(k) plan for employees and pushed them to participate.   Chobani also offers paid maternity AND paternity leave.

Ulukaya has stated that higher wages for employees leads to greater corporate success. Not only does he promote the position that companies can succeed when they pay their workers more, they also have a moral obligation to do so, stating that, “…for the sake of our communities and our people, we need to give other companies the ability to create a better life for more people.”  The Chobani yogurt plant in Twin Falls, Idaho is the largest in the world and pays its workers in the area on average twice the minimum wage

“In an interview with Ernst and Young Global Chairman & CEO Mark A. Weinberger, Ulukaya said that businessmen should promote a sense of purpose in their corporate culture to create a climate of positive change in business and the world. He stated that companies should focus on humanity and not just on their bottom lines. “Business is still the strongest, most effective way to change the world,” Ulukaya told Weinberger”

In a forum hosted by the Wall Street Journal, Ulukaya joined other key business leaders in a discussion on “Misconceptions People Have About US Manufacturing.” He stated that “Manufacturing can rebuild the modern American economy.”

Chobani has gone out of it’s way to hire refugees from centers close by his plants.  He has donated $2 million to the U.N. High Commission to help refugees and visited the island of Lesbos to see for himself the refugee situation.

Giving away millions to his employees

Having built a company now worth billions, the shepherd announced last year that his 2,000 employees would be given an ownership stake that could make some of them millionaires.  He gave 10% of his personal shares to his employees, based on their length of tenure with the company.  The average share award was valued at $150,000.

“I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people.”

The shares given to Chobani employees are coming directly from Mr. Ulukaya. The shares can be sold if or when the company goes public or is bought by another business.  Employees can hang onto the shares if they leave or retire, or the company will buy them back.  Nice.

This sort of transfer of shares to employees is rare in the food industry.

Technology start-ups often pay employees partly in shares to help recruit them or to compete in a company’s early days for in-demand workers. Early employees of Google and Facebook became overnight multimillionaires thanks to such compensation.

But unlike many of those tech companies, Mr. Ulukaya is giving his employees a piece of the company after its value has been firmly established.  He KNEW how much he was giving away.  It wasn’t just paper that might be worth something someday.

Classic American immigrant success story right?  Well not to our right wing and Trump supporters.  You see, Chobani has about 300 refugees working in its Idaho plant as well as a number of refugees it hired out of a refugee center in the vicinity of its upstate New York facility.

Visiting a refugee center in Hamburg, Germany

Mr. Ulukaya and the company have been taunted with racist epithets on Twitter and Facebook. Fringe websites have published false stories claiming Mr. Ulukaya wants “to drown the United States in Muslims.” And the mayor of Twin Falls has received death threats, partly as a result of his support for Chobani.  Breitbart and Steve Bannon (who ran the Trump campaign and is now in the White House) joined in the attacks.

Alex Jones, he of Infowars fame,  targeted Chobani when, last summer, three children assaulted a 5-year-old girl. The story spread through right-wing media that the attackers — 14, 10 and 7 — were from refugee families. The false narrative pushed by Jones included the involvement of Syrians, rape and urinating in the victim’s mouth. Jones linked it — along with some unrelated cases of tuberculosis — to Chobani.

All of it was untrue.

Chobani sued Jones and Infowars for defamation – and won.   The key component of the settlement agreement required him to retract inflammatory comments about refugees and the company he made and apologize on his Infowars website.

It marks another blow to Jones, who previously apologized and issued a retraction to a Washington, D.C.-based pizzeria for his broadcast’s role in pushing a false story about a child sex ring that involved Hillary Clinton.  He has also characterized the Sandy Hook massacre as a conspiracy, saying it was all faked.

“You just ran into a Texan,” Jones had said. “So you get ready because we’re never backing down and our audience is never backing down.”

Until Jones did. Again.

Worst thing they can imagine.  A Muslim immigrant who has made jobs in small town America and actually treats his employees like human beings.

Buy Chobani.  It’s really good!!  I had one this morning!

And happy Fourth!!  And especially to you Mr. Ulukaya!


About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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26 Responses to A Story For The 4th Of July

  1. beetleypete says:

    Whatever happened to the ‘American Way’? Once the envy of the world, now lost in the shit-pile that is ‘modern America’.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 4 people

    • toritto says:

      Indeed Pete. I find it hard to recognize my country. Regards.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Anna Cottage says:

      The same could be said of the Country I love, the Country I was born in, my Parents Immigrants from Ireland who came to England to work, met, Married had two Daughters. My Parents are now Dead, my Husband is now Dead, my two Sons still live at home in our large House, but one thing is wrong – the Country of my Birth, England is no longer the fine Country it once was People no longer care, have no respect, no decorum I could cry for the Country I love. The UK is too soft we allow too much far too much, and its me me me, I hate it all. I am glad I have less years ahead than I have behind. Brought up in the 1950’s the 60s/70s/early 80s were the best, the rest deteriorating shit. God help the Children of the future, there will be no Europe, just a mixed Eastern Europe and a shit pile.

      Liked by 2 people

      • beetleypete says:

        We must be around the same age, as I too was brought up in the late 50s, and 1960s. (Born 1952) I lived in London for 60 years, watching it change from the city I loved in my youth. Moving to Norfolk made me realise that much of ‘old England’ is alive and well.
        You just have to find it.
        Best wishes, Pete.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m inspired and angry in equal measure!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Lara/Trace says:

    I say this often… WOW

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What an amazing success story of an American immigrant! I only eat Chobani yogurt, as recommended by my doctor. So sorry to learn that the company is under attack by the Mean Team.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. paolsoren says:

    Wow!!!!! Now that is a story. At the start I was wondering about the Trump effect. But that came too. We have the bastards here in Australia too. And we have some good refugee stories also. Thanks very much.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. leggypeggy says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. The smear campaign carried out against Mr. Ulukaya and others is one of the reasons I’m relieved that I no longer live in America.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. zdunno03 says:

    An appropriate tale for this day & age. I’ve reblogged this.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved this story.I saw this story a while back on 60 minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. toritto says:

    Thanks Vicky – I missed the 60 minutes piece but he is getting to be much better known in this country. I thought it would be a good story for Independence Day. Regards from Florida.


  10. This is a wonderful success story repeated many times over the years in the land of opportunity. We are at a low point in history , an incompetent bully And his cohorts occupy the highest office of this great nation elected by the uninformed, the uneducated , and the power hungry but not by popular vote. To call this country a shit pile is repugnant. To kick us when we are down is hypocritical. There are many great success stories as we are a nation of immigrants who came here to escape persecution or just to make a better life, and hats off to Chobani, an example of great success. We , the people, could use some encouragement rather being kicked when we are fighting this enemy of the people. Our borders are still besieged by those who risk their lives to enter here. We have come to the rescue of many nations in trouble but when we are in trouble we get a kick in the teeth and called a shit pile. Shame.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Awesome! This man is inspirational. Thanks for sharing. May his example be multiplied.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Anna Cottage says:

    Thank you for responding, I live by the Sea, Clacton-on-Sea “BREXIT” as we were known. This is England alright but when I look around to the rest of the Country in particular London the City I worked in for many many years for one of the biggest well respected Companies, I find it so sad as to what is happening to it now. The UK has opened its gates too much, not enough checks, Terrorists allowed in, Terrorists living and teaching here, we are far too soft, time those of us were allowed our opinions without being called Racists all the time. Can’t even fly our Flag, the Union Jack or St George’s Cross. The once Proud and Strong United Kingdom is towing the line to the Lunatics, we must stop it before its too late.


  13. swo8 says:

    Wonderful success story.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Melinda says:

    As usual my delightfully big hearted friend, you have nailed it! So happy 4th of July to all who support this incredibly generous spirit that will – with our help- prevail despite the small minded and tight fisted proponents who insist that altruism is ruining our country. In our America, love wins!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Wow. Great story. I never heard about this until now.

    Interestingly, I only eat Chobani yogurt. I used to eat organic yogurt, but for some reason it’s become hard to find the flavors I like where I live. So I went back to eating high protein Chobani yogurt. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This post is truly heartwarming and shows how important our immigrant community is in the US. So many immigrants who succeed “Pay it Forward” and work hard to make sure that those around them have an opportunity to succeed as well. Quite a stark contrast to # 45, his administration and many in our congress who seem to be hellbent on a massive plan to rape our environment, deny healthcare and a safety net to our most vulnerable citizens and slam the door shut on immigrants and refugees who could contribute so much more to our country. Thank you for this lovely 4th of July story! Anita

    Liked by 1 person

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