TWIN FALLS — Chobani is extending its reach farther down the yogurt aisle.
About a month ago, the company began producing its first classic yogurt, Chobani Smooth, which is hitting store shelves in five flavors: peach, strawberry, cherry, blueberry and vanilla.
Although currently produced in the upstate New York factory, Chobani Smooth was developed in Twin Falls and will likely be made here in the future.
“This launch is our most successful launch since Fruit on the Bottom,” said Kai Sacher, vice president of global research and development, and the man behind Chobani Smooth’s invention.
Almost every Chobani retailer has not only agreed to offer the new product, but has chosen to carry every flavor, he said.
“We did not expect this,” Sacher said. “It tells us they were desperate for innovation.”
Chobani is the leading Greek yogurt brand in the U.S., having accounted for 38 percent of Greek yogurt sales in the 13-week period ending June 17.
On Friday, the Times-News sat down with Sacher to learn how Chobani Smooth was developed in Twin Falls.
What is Sacher’s background with Chobani?
Kai Sacher joined Chobani six years ago, and was working in research and development at the New York plant.
Sacher, 52, is a food engineer who previously worked with Dannon worldwide. He’s from Munich, but spent part of his life in the mountains of Austria, helping out on dairy farms.
Not only did Sacher see the U.S. as a green field for yogurt development, but Chobani was an up-and-coming business with a passionate CEO — Hamdi Ulukaya.
“He’s not only a yogurt maker, he’s in love with his product and the design of his product,” Sacher said. “He had a big vision, which I totally understood.”
Since Sacher joined Chobani, the yogurt maker has expanded from offering six products and flavors to producing hundreds.
What inspired Chobani Smooth?
Chobani has transformed and built up the Greek yogurt market in the U.S., forcing other companies to compete, Sacher said.
“The classic yogurt, nobody really challenged,” he said. “This was a clear opportunity for us.”
The company has anticipated branching out into a classic yogurt market for at least a couple of years.
“The final development took about a half-year,” he said.
Most yogurts in the aisle, Sacher said, are made with gelatin, modified starch and artificial ingredients.
“We don’t use a modified starch, we don’t use gelatin. We don’t use an artificial sweetener,” he said. “(We) just make a natural, good yogurt.”
Chobani Smooth is sweetened with a less refined sugar — evaporated cane sugar.
“On top of it, our product has 25 percent less sugar than the majority (of classic yogurts), and double the protein,” he said.
How is Greek yogurt different from classic yogurt?
Greek yogurt has been strained and has a strong, tart, character with more thickness than classic yogurt.
“For the consumer, the big difference is the smooth texture and the mildness (of classic yogurt),” Sacher said.
What went into the research and development of this new product?
It took six months from the first prototype to the first Chobani Smooth product in the market.
“This was a much more intensive development phase,” Sacher said.
Invention at Chobani happens with involvement from the CEO himself, who flew in to Twin Falls to sample yogurt and offer direction. Employees would work late at night to prepare the yogurt workshops for Ulukaya’s arrival, Sacher said.
This is highly unusual from most yogurt companies, where a CEO doesn’t taste the product until it’s on the line, he said.
“If a visionary is really involved in the development, he can really express what he wants,” he said.
Tell us about Chobani’s research and development team.
When Sacher came to Twin Falls in 2012 for a visit, he was convinced that Twin Falls was a great place to attract people. The factory itself, he said, was built for innovation — as the place where Chobani would make and release its Flip products.
“In such a fast-moving company, you need to have research and development close to the production,” Sacher said.
The R&D team moved to Twin Falls in 2013. It currently operates out of trailers, but later this year Chobani hopes to break ground on a new office building.
The team includes people representing six to eight nationalities, who bring diverse sensory experiences to the table, he said.
What’s it like to work in R&D?
The team puts a huge focus on having fun at work, he said, and yogurt is the output.
“You eat a product which is basically super healthy,” Sacher said.
And eating yogurt is huge part of his job.
“My job is really to see if my translation got translated in the right way,” Sacher said.
His scientific instructions to the R&D team result in numerous samples which go through Sacher’s selection process before they come before Ulukaya.
“There are days when I taste 40 yogurts in a day,” he said.
That’s about a pound of yogurt. Of the 140 samples tested for Chobani Smooth, Ulukaya probably tasted the top 20, Sacher said.
And it’s more than just a little taste.
“You need to have a few spoonfuls to understand what’s happening, how it’s playing, this game of flavors,” he said.