Fueling Innovation Kim Lachance Shandrow  | July 26, 2018

How Chobani Is Helping Unleash A New Generation of Disruptive Food Startups

Welcome to #BizUnited, a new series highlighting innovative partnerships between large companies and smaller businesses across America. Check back periodically for new installments.

When Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States 23 years ago, he spoke no English and hardly had any money. What the Turkey native did have was his family’s generations-old recipe for creamy, nourishing yogurt, along with a relentless drive and an entrepreneurial spirit.

“I wanted to build a brand that stood for something bigger than just our product,” Ulukaya said, “and that made food we could be proud to share with our families.”

In 2005, Ulukaya turned his entrepreneurial dreams into reality when he purchased an abandoned yogurt plant in New Berlin, New York. At the time, Chobani had only five people on the payroll. Today, the company (now headquartered in Norwich, New York) behind America’s top-selling yogurt brand is 2,000 employees strong. Thanks to Ulukaya’s ongoing commitment to creating jobs in America, approximately 70 percent of Chobani employees are U.S. residents and approximately 30 percent are refugees and immigrants to this country.

Along the immigrant entrepreneur’s remarkable road to success, Ulukaya, now a billionaire, did not forget the “little guys.” The main street entrepreneurs that deeply contribute to the fabric of the America. Independent startup founders who he says “give better options and help to strengthen our communities.”

“For a long time, I’ve wanted to help give other food entrepreneurs the chance to share their food with the world,” Ulukaya said in a letter he published on LinkedIn. That’s precisely why he gave the founders of six innovative food startups a leg up on launching and scaling their business via his inaugural Chobani Food Incubator program.

“More than 400 amazing food startups applied to join the inaugural class,” Ulukaya said. “While so many had great ideas and fantastic food, we carefully looked for the companies that could really benefit from working with us as the program gets going. I don’t think there’s been a better time in this country to be a food company, and the story of Chobani is proof that the food revolution is just getting started.”

Under the guidance of Chobani employees, the participating food startups collectively increased distribution by an average of 60 percent during the program. Each also expanded its product portfolio, secured relationships with retailers and boosted staffing.

Giving Back By Creating Opportunity

“Our company’s mission is to provide better food for more people,” said Ulukaya. “We want to extend our mission beyond our own products and into the communities we live in by helping socially responsible food entrepreneurs make their products available to all. We believe that together, we can challenge the food industry, improve broken systems and make a difference.”

Here’s a snapshot of the innovative and inspiring food startups that took part in the Chobani Food Incubator:

1. Misfit Juicery

Not every fruit or vegetable looks good enough to eat. In fact, approximately 20 billion pounds of tasty produce goes unsold or unharvested every year in America, often because these edible “odd ducks” are too “ugly” or otherwise aesthetically unappealing to appetize. The food waste-fighting founders of Washington, D.C.-based Misfit Juicery want to change that, one nutritious bottled cold-pressed juice at a time.

Inspired by “the ugly fruit and vegetable movement,” good friends Ann Yang and Phil Wong launched Misfit Juicery together in November 2014. At the time, both were still enrolled at Georgetown University, where they clinched first place (and a $20,000 prize) in the school’s Hoya Pitch Challenge and Social Innovation Competition.

“We don’t see ourselves as a cold-pressed juice company,” Wong told BevNET. “We see ourselves as a company fighting food waste, and the vehicle for that is cold-pressed juice … The struggle is real. Luckily, so is the solution.”

The rising startup, which makes its juices from 70 to 80 percent fruits and veggies that would otherwise literally get trashed, has penned deals to provide its refreshing juice blends to two D.C.-area fast-casual restaurant chains, Chaia and the New York City-based Dig Inn.

“We’ve launched in Dig Inn, doubled our shelf-life, and are well on our way to hiring a key salesperson thanks to the guidance of the Chobani team and the other companies in the Incubator,” said Wong. “Beyond those distinct and easily identifiable wins, we have a clearer vision of how we scale our mission, our culture and our business.”

Outcomes of Participating in Chobani’s Incubator:
● Launched a partnership with fast casual chain Dig Inn to make a better orange juice
● Named Nexty Editor’s Choice: Best New Beverage at Expo West

2. Kettle & Fire

Brothers Nick and Justin Mares are on a quest to popularize a strange brew of sorts. The not so secret ingredient is in the bones. Cow bones.

“Our goal is to bring bone broth back into the American diet,” Justin told The Path Magazine. To do just that, they co-founded Kettle & Fire LLC, in 2014 in San Francisco, and started making and selling the gelatin- and collagen-packed stock that is widely believed to reduce intestinal inflammation and other ailments.

The Mares’s mutual interest in bone broth was sparked when Nick suffered a knee injury while playing soccer. “He was bedridden for seven weeks after surgery,” Justin said. “And he was really looking for foods that could help accelerate the healing process. I went to buy him bone broth and saw that literally nobody was selling it online. So it all started to come together and that’s kind of when we decided, ‘Okay, let’s see if we can make the first shelf-stable bone broth product out there.’ Since then, it’s been off to the races!”

But Kettle & Fire’s quick simmer to niche market success hasn’t been all gravy. Problem is, the entrepreneurial brothers say, not many people in the U.S. have even heard of bone broth, let alone the restorative health benefits of sipping the protein-rich stock that some call “nature’s multivitamin.”

“We have our work cut out for us,” Justin admitted, referring to mainstreaming Kettle & Fire’s carnivorous consommés. But that’s not stopping him, nor his brother, from marketing what they claim is America’s first shelf-stable USDA grass-fed beef bone broth, and full-steam ahead online and in grocery stores.

“The Chobani Food Incubator has inspired us to think bigger and helped us develop and execute on our mission of better food for more people,” Justin said. “Since joining the program, they’ve helped us grow same-store sales more than 150 percent, and guided us as we’ve added hundreds of new distribution points.”

Outcomes of Participating in Chobani’s Incubator:
● Experienced a fourfold increase in distribution
● Improved same-store sales by 150 percent-plus

3. Banza

Brian Rudolph, a self-described “kid who liked to play with his food and held the belief that his favorite dishes out to be more nutritious,” created a cool, new type of pasta after “messing around in the kitchen.” The toothsome stuff is comprised of chick peas, tapioca, pea protein and xanthan gum.

Riffing off of the gluten-free, lower-carb specialty pasta’s primary ingredient, garbanzo beans — the key ingredient in hummus — he called the new food he spent many late nights perfecting Banza. Today, his startup, co-owned by his brother Scott Rudolph, also named Banza, sells its pasta at 4,500-plus grocery stores across the U.S.

“Banza takes the foods that people love and makes them better by using more nutritious ingredients,” said Brian Rudolph, a Venture For America fellow, on Banza’s website.

The cost-conscious, sustainably sourced pasta, manufactured in a “rehabbed house” in Detroit, comes in shell, elbow, penne and spaghetti varieties, along with several gourmet macaroni and cheese flavors. A boon to vegans and vegetarians in the market for egg-free pasta alternatives, and to people who are allergic to gluten, Banza packs twice the amount of protein as traditional pasta and all of the flavor. [We can personally vouch for the smooth, rich and somewhat nutty taste, as we’ve tried Banza on more than a few occasions.]

“I started this business at 23 in 2014,” Brian Rudolph said, “and our team is small and we have no prior experience in food. Chobani was integral in helping us to not only avoid mistakes but also to think proactively about how we can be better as a business.”

Outcomes of Participating in Chobani’s Incubator:
● Hired a new head of field marketing
● Sealed a distribution deal with a top retail chain

4. Cissé Cocoa Co.

Chocolate lover Diana Lovett dreamed of starting a chocolate brownie and cake mix company that would use only fair-trade and sustainably sourced cocoa, while at the same time supporting small-scale farmers. The former Yale University and Cambridge University Fulbright scholar was inspired to launch her Mamaroneck, N.Y.-based startup, Cissé Cocoa Co., in 2012 after volunteering in a poverty-stricken region of Africa.

“I started Cisse Cocoa Co. out of my passion for chocolate and sustainable development,” Lovett told CNBC. “… I was lucky enough to do international development work. I lived in Africa. I worked for Doctors Without Borders, and I kept trying to find a way to address the social needs I was seeing through a business.”

While later traveling the world again to find an ethical premium cocoa powder source as the foundation for her sweet selections — brownie Super Thins and cookie-, muffin- and brownie-baking mixes among them — Lovette settled on a small farm cooperative in the Dominican Republic. Cissé’s USDA organic, single-origin, signature cocoa powder is now the base of all of its products. Each box of baking mix features an infographic that enables consumers to map the origin of their purchase from “bean to box.”

“The Chobani Food Incubator inspired us to dream bigger,” Lovett said, “and that our company is not just a suite of products, it is a lever for social good. “The [Chobani] program, and Hamdi [Ulukaya] especially, inspired me to do more to invest in our people, from maximizing how we partner with farmers, to how we can be great partners in manufacturing, to really taking care of our HQ staff.”

Outcomes of Participating in Chobani’s Incubator:
● Launched in Hudson News chain retail stores
● Boosted retail chain store availability count from 2,000 to 4,500

5. Chops Snacks

Yale University alums and friends Luke Sellers and Aaron Jones co-founded Chop Snacks in 2013 while on a shared quest to find beef jerky that’s less of a tooth tug-o-war to eat.

The young entrepreneurial duo, anchored out of New York City, claims their new, “improved” jerky is markedly more tender than traditional jerky. That’s because it’s sourced from USDA Choice and Select beef brisket from premium American steer, as opposed to from “old dairy cattle,” which they say tend to be the industry norm.

“Most beef jerky is really tough,” Sellers said in a Yale Entrepreneurial Institute article. “Ours is much softer. It melts in the mouth. We know that going to work is tough, commuting is tough and exercising is tough … but your jerky doesn’t have to be.”

Their “easy-chew,” high-protein meaty bites are made with only all-natural ingredients and are thinner than traditional jerky. It’s win-win: The thinner the meat, the shorter the cook time and the higher yield.

“The Chobani Food Incubator has not only been immensely helpful for our company’s growth but has given our team something that I think many companies take years to find: vision and brand mission,” Sellers continued. “Everyone at Chobani has inspired our brand vision to not only offer the highest quality snacks possible, but to also ensure they’re accessible to as many consumers as possible.”

Outcomes of Participating in Chobani’s Incubator:
● Exposure to and product requests from four national grocery chains
● Rose to become a top-rated beef jerky on several e-commerce platforms in the U.S.

6. Jar Goods

Avid home cooks and sisters-in-law Laura and Melissa Vitelli co-cooked up Jar Goods in Hoboken, N.J. in July of 2012. Their shared goal: Offering robust specialty pasta sauces in simply yet elegantly decorated jars. Together they bootstrapped their startup, fittingly called Jar Goods, using a small investment of $150.

Today, the Vitellis’s rich sauces, rooted in long-cherished family recipes and officially put on the market in 2013, are available in Classic Red, Classic Spicy and Classic Vodka.

“Not only has the Incubator provided us with irreplaceable validation, mentorship and fostering, it has changed the very way we think,” Melissa Vitelli said. “It has opened our minds up to how we can and should innovate to better the business of food.”

Outcomes of Participating in Chobani’s Incubator:
● Began interviewing for the startup’s first hire
● Grew the number of places their products are available by 50 percent

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