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Chobani’s recently opened SoHo flagship store at 150 Prince St.
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If you’ve watched television in the last decade, you’ve probably noticed that, apparently, yogurt is the official food of ladies. Consider those Yoplait commercials, where the women announce that their cake-flavored dairy is “soooo good” with such fervor that you’re not sure if they’re eating yogurt or having an orgasm—or both. It seems, however, that people—especially women, if they’re inhaling yogurt at the rate the media would lead us to believe—are now shying away from yogurts purporting to taste like apple turnovers or Boston cream pie, instead turning to those that are “pure” and “simple,” namely, Greek yogurt.
Greece has, over its history, been synonymous with everything from ancient mythology to olive oil to the European debt crisis. Nowadays, Americans have a new appreciation for its culture (literally). Since its integration into the American diet, yogurt has evolved with American tastes. We’ve put fruit on its bottom, frozen it to the texture of ice cream, and even squeezed it into portable tubes. But no form of yogurt has risen to the top of the snack world at such a rapid rate as Greek yogurt has, perhaps because of its investment in advertising.
As a woman who does, indeed, feed into the yogurt-eating stereotype of my gender, I eagerly hop the 1 train down to Chobani’s newly minted yogurt bar at 150 Prince St. Upon arrival, I find that there is no register or formal line in the shop—perhaps to prove it’s an exception to the impersonal experience of a supermarket. A yogurt sommelier in a white linen shirt approaches me and pulls out a glossy menu for me to peruse. It features “simple favorites” ($2.75), such as plain yogurt with honey, as well as “yogurt creations” ($4.25), which are made-to-order by “master yogurt makers.” My personal yogurt expert recommends “Blueberry + Power,” which features plain Chobani two percent yogurt topped with fresh blueberries, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and agave nectar. He hints that is it a great choice if I’ve just come from a workout (I have not).
Compared to conventional yogurt, Greek yogurt is richer, thicker, and, as most package labels won’t let us forget, still maintains a relatively low fat content. All of these qualities make it an appealing snack choice—but, for many, perhaps the most alluring quality of Greek yogurt is its intrinsic Mediterraneanness, a feature on which most brands are quick to capitalize. Despite Chobani’s lack of actual ties to the country of Greece (the brand was founded in 2005 in upstate New York by Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant), the company liberally uses Hellenic lettering on their packaging. Similarly, Dannon, whose headquarters are located in France, stamps cartoon Parthenons on their Oikos cups. Even the Chobani store’s menu illustrates this strange muddle of cultures by featuring traditional flavor combinations— think “fig + walnut”—alongside American pairs like “peanut butter + jelly.”
Chobani isn’t the first company to transport Greek yogurt beyond the dairy aisle. To complement their frozen fare, Pinkberry is slowly adding Greek yogurt to menus at selection locations. Dannon now has a storefront shop, The Yogurt Culture Company, at 125 Park Ave. Recently, the Tasting Table even hosted an exclusive Fage yogurt cocktail party. Soon, tourists may opt to flock to these trendy cafes over pizza places or bagel shops.
Indeed, despite the product’s supposedly off-shore origins, Greek yogurt is becoming an economic staple for New York state: Both Chobani and Fage headquarters are located here. In August, Governor Andrew Cuomo held the state’s first “Yogurt Summit,” in hopes of turning New York into the yogurt capital of the world. According to NPR, Chobani produces 1 million pounds of yogurt in their upstate New York factory every day and holds a 47 percent share of the Greek yogurt market. They even sponsored the U.S. Olympic team in this year’s summer games, perhaps proving that the only Greek thing about this popular incarnation of yogurt is its name.
In an interview with CNNMoney, Chobani’s founder defended his use of the Greek title: “Everyone asks me why someone Turkish is making Greek yogurt. In Greece, it is not called ‘Greek yogurt.’ Everywhere in the world it is called ‘strained yogurt.’ But because it was introduced in this country by a Greek company, they called it ‘Greek yogurt.’ It doesn’t matter whether it’s Greek yogurt or Turkish yogurt, as long as it’s a good yogurt.” But maybe it does matter. The disparity between Chobani’s success and the status of the country with which it associates is undeniable. Perhaps yogurt would be the perfect export to drag Greece out of its economic turmoil. After all, it is lower in fat—making it perfect for lean times.
Back at the Chobani store, I’m told that I can “watch my creation be made” behind a glass window, where the “master yogurt maker” in a white chef’s hat tops off cups. As I wait, I browse the shop’s display of artisanal olive oil, honey, and nuts for sale, which aren’t exactly a great bargain. However, they do sell classic packaged Chobani (the kind you’d find in the dairy aisle of your local supermarket) in a variety of flavors for $1.25, which they claim is the best price on their yogurt in Manhattan. Hannah, a first-year at nearby NYU and a frequent Chobani SoHo customer, tells me that her favorite aspect of Chobani is “the thicker yogurt. Every other yogurt feels really watery. I’ve been here so many times since I got here three weeks ago.”
At last, my name is called, and my creation is served to me in a tiny glass bowl topped with a removable piece of cheesecloth, imprinted with the brand’s logo. Ultimately, the most exciting part of the Chobani experience is that, when you’re finished eating, you get to exchange your used glass bowl for a clean, take-home model or a 25 cent off coupon for a future visit. I opt for the souvenir and, on my way home, calculate how many proudly American Go-Gurts I could buy for $4.25.
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