Saturday, August 31, 2013

Greek to Me

Chobani has a problem, but you wouldn't know it on these shores. Chobani, in case you've unfamiliar, is a wunderkind of a company, growing from nothing to over $1 billion in revenue and an industry leading position in just over five years. But unlike most recent business success stories, we're not talking here about mobile phones or websites or apps that tell you where to find the cheapest socks. We're talking yogurt, specifically Greek yogurt, a subset of the market that in those same five years went from 1% of all yogurt sold to 35%.

Until recently, most yogurt consumed on these shores was of a thinner variety. Plain or flavored, it was your basic fermented milk product, with your biggest decision as to whether you wanted fruit on the bottom or top. But throughout the Middle East, and eventually gaining the modifier "Greek style" and then later just "Greek," that same yogurt was hung in bags from which the whey drained. The result was a more concentrated product which gained a toehold in the US, and then quickly started stepping on the toes of such industry leaders as Dannon, Yoplait and Stonyfield Farm, purveyors of the traditional style.  

All well and good in the US of A. Not so much in England and Wales, however, where Greek yogurt was, well Greek. In a suit brought by FAGE, one of Chobani's chief competitors, and who until recently had 95% of the market, they protested that Chobani was importing product made in upstate New York, while calling themselves Hellenic. Or as written in documents filed in the High Court of Justice in London, "It is not seriously in dispute that, with one modest exception, all yoghurt sold to the public in the UK during the 25 years or so before September 2012 with descriptions including ‘Greek yoghurt' in the labels on the pots was strained yoghurt made in Greece." Not that there was anything wrong with the product itself, or even non-strained yogurt, as court documents take pains to point out: "It is common ground that both FAGE's and Chobani 's yoghurt is of the general type which may loosely be described as ‘thick and creamy', by comparison with other yoghurt, to which I will refer without intending to be pejorative as ‘ordinary yoghurt.'"

Still, if you can't sell yourself as "Greek," what do you do? It's the inverse of a similar story from more than a decade ago. Back in 2000, the folks at the California Prune Board had a problem. Their product was seen as old and stodgy, and better known for its laxative properties than for its yumminess. And so after ten years of falling sales, they came to the conclusion that perhaps Juliet was right, and a rose by another name might smell, or in this case, taste just as sweet. The got approval to change the label, enabling their produce to join the small club of "foods-formerly-known-as" (the Chinese gooseberry became the kiwi, while chickpeas became garbanzos). And today Americans recognize those shriveled looking things not as prunes, but as dried plums. (One exception: prune juice is still prune juice. The FDA decided that "dried prune juice" was a contradiction in terms.)

As for Chobani, they had the opposite problem, going from an attractive label to one that is less so. Her Majesty's court ruled against them this spring, concluding that "the use of Greek yoghurt to describe yoghurt not made in Greece plainly involves a material misrepresentation." They are appealing the decision, taking the position that "Greek" refers to the style and not the country of origin. But in the meantime they have to refer to their product as "strained yoghurt." And they have to hope that consumers get it, for, as spokesperson Christine Fung says, "The UK yoghurt market is one of the most sophisticated in the world."

But don't count Chobani out just yet. Greek yogurt is continuing to gain popularity, and like many things, popular acceptance could tip the tide in the UK. It's probably only matter of time. After all, they like ice cream, and Ben and Jerry's has a new flavor sure to be a hit: Pineapple Passionfruit Greek Frozen Yogurt. And then even the Brits will be forced to agree with the ads that it's "Really Greekin' Good."


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes Greek yogurt, but doesn't quite get what all the fuss is about. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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