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Got Yogurt: It’s All Turning Greek! The Greek Yogurt Frenzy in the US

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A Greek yogurt spin off: hummus with yogurt

If you were raised Greek, you knew before any non-Greek how good Greek yogurt is.  By now, even if you aren’t Greek, you know how good Greek yogurt is.  If you have bothered to look at the labels in the dairy section of your local supermarket, you will note that when it comes to yogurt, it’s all Greek.  There’s Chobani, Fage, the two original giants in the Greek yogurt market, but now even “American” companies have come in to take a share of the yogurt tub. There’s Dannon’s OIKOS , Stonyfield Organic, Yoplait, Franklin Farms, and in case you didn’t get the point, there’s even The Greek Gods Greek yogurt.   A recent New York Times article made mention of specialty designer brands like Brown Cow and Staus Family Creamery going after the gooey stuff .  According to The Times,  “Last fall, Trader Joe’s organic house brand came in a seasonal pumpkin flavor, like instant guilt-free pie filling. And Norman’s, a new kosher brand from New Jersey designed for the ultra-Orthodox, has six flavors, four of which are also kosher for Passover.”

And what about the yogurt bar scene?  Last summer Chobani opened its first yogurt bar in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, proof that the exotic yogurt has gone mainstream.   Even Pinkberry,  the huge frozen yogurt chain, is scheduled to have fresh Greek yogurt counters at all of its stores by April 1, where it will offer not just fruits and nuts as accompaniments, but also tomatoes, cucumbers, basil and olive oil.

The Dannon Company debuted its Oikos brand in 2010 and currently holds a 20 percent stake in the market. This summer the 70-year-old yogurt maker opened The Yogurt Culture Company just a few short blocks from New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The yogurt shop offers both traditional and Greek yogurt varieties to yogurt lovers along with a small selection of baked goods, salads and sandwiches. The majority of the store’s customers are choosing Dannon’s Greek yogurt over traditional yogurt, a trend that’s not surprising given the current consumer interest in the product, according to Dannon Spokesperson Michael Neuwirth.

Greek yogurt cream cheese

Another hybrid product on the heels of the Greek yogurt craze: Greek yogurt cream cheese by Green Mountain Farms

The Greek yogurt craze has even spread into the Midwest with traditional dairies like the Klondike Cheese company scheduled to release its line of Greek yogurt with four flavors.  And it doesn’t stop there.  New Greek-yogurt-like spin-offs have also started encroaching on the market:  Have you tried Yummus, the half-hummus half-Greek yogurt concoction?  Or what about Franklin Foods Greek yogurt cream cheese, half the calories of regular cream cheese that is now available in every WalMart across the US?  So what’s the deal?  How come Greek yogurt has exploded in the last five years?  Here’s our exclusive in-depth profile of the Greek yogurt phenomenon.

What is Greek yogurt exactly, and how does it differ from “regular” yogurt?

From what I can remember of my pappou in the village, Greek yogurt is strained.  He would milk the goats first, boil the milk in a big cooking pot, add yogurt cultures or curdling agents from a spoon, and let it sit.  Then he would ladle the curdled stuff into giant cheese cloth or burlap sacks shaped like upside down  witches’ hats that he would hook from the ceiling of his stone house.  Then he would let the yogurt strain. That’s the part that made his entire house reek of curdling milk, and the part that stands out in my childhood memories.

What makes Greek yogurt different from the regular, watery kind you would find on American shelves is its thickness.    The thickness comes from the process of making it.  A Greek yogurt requires two to three times more milk than one cup of regular yogurt.  While that is good for its protein content, that is why it tends to be costlier than regular yogurt.  Because it is made without extra sugars, if made the traditional way,  it boasts more protein, less sugar and fewer carbs than traditional yogurt.

True or False:  The No. 1 brand of Greek yogurt is Greek.

False.    Back in 2007, there were only two Greek yogurt makers:  Chobani and Fage.  Fage is the original Greek company that sells yogurt in Greece.  But, because the company did not feel Greek-style yogurt would catch on in the States, so it decreased production.  That’s when founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya,a Turk, thought otherwise.  He has not curbed investment in Greek yogurt in his upstate facility.  Whether ironic or tragic, that is the reality.  The most successful Greek-yogurt production company is Turkish.   Chobani now commands a 47 percent share of the Greek U.S. yogurt market, according Bernstein Research’s data, which itself hauls in $6 billion annually.   Chobani’s SOHO yogurt store is packed with upscale New Yorkers, ordering yogurt creations like “Pistachio + Chocolate,” which contains Turkish pistachios, dark chocolate, honey, oranges and mint leaves and of course, Chobani plain yogurt. The store sells 600 to 700 “creations” a day and many are favorites of Chobani The “Pistachio + Chocolate” was an after dinner treat for Ulukaya’s family and friends and the “Blueberry + Power” combo — which consists of yogurt, blueberries, chia seeds, hemp, walnuts and light agave — has been breakfast for the Turkish native for years.

Is it only a fad? 

According to an in-depth article on the yogurt industry in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the answer is NO.  Greek yogurt is here to stay.  Analysts at Bernstein Research say the “revolution” in the U.S. yogurt market stems directly from the increasing popularity of Greek yogurt, which will “continue to grow strongly and gain market share…possibly peaking at over 50 percent of the market.”

The strong market demand has small to big businesses scrambling to keep up.  Chobani and Dannon are both betting that Greek yogurt will continue to win over the hearts and stomachs of American consumers. Chobani recently invested $250 million in its Central New York yogurt manufacturing plant and will start production at its brand new $128 million, 900,000-square-foot facility in Twin Falls, Idaho this fall. The company will hire 400 workers at the plant, increasing its total U.S. workforce to 1,600 employees.

Dannon, which produces its yogurt in Ohio and Pennsylvania, will boost yogurt production at its Utah plant later this year to keep up with demand.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hosted the state’s first “Yogurt Summit” in August 2012 to help ensure New York’s place as the yogurt industry’s premier destination. According to the governor’s office, the number of yogurt processing plants in the state have increased from 14 in 2000 to 29 in 2012. The state’s yogurt plants doubled production from 2005 to 2011 and the dairy and yogurt industries have added $8.9 billion to New York’s economy. Chobani and Fage both have their main production plants in Central New York.

Even the smaller Batavia-based Alpina dairy cooperative plans to expand after the demand for yogurt steadies.  The company may exceed its projection of 42 million pots of yogurt this year. After starting with 25 employees late last summer, the plant now has more than 51 employees and is running three shifts six days a week.

If General Mills gets in on the action,  Greek yogurt will be everywhere—even in Idaho.

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Will Greek yogurt be on the lunch tray at schools across America? 

Maybe.  Just last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo  proposed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use New York as a pilot state for putting Greek yogurt on the school lunch menu.  His proposal rides the tide of U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer’s  who has been a major supporter of getting Greek yogurt into New York schools. Last week, the senator announced more assistance to dairy farmers so they can meet the growing demand for milk caused by numerous Greek yogurt plants in New York.

Greek yogurt is so much more nutritionally beneficial for growing minds and bodies, it will be hard to reject it.  The mousaka, on the other hand, maybe not.

So, a process that lonely sheep and goat herders invented has now become a booming billion dollar corporate industry.  Just to show how right giagia and pappou were.