Chobani set­tles in Idaho de­spite refugee back­lash

Orlando Sentinel - - PEOPLE & ARTS - By Kim­ber­lee Kruesi

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — The founder and CEO of Chobani has no re­grets about mov­ing his Greek yo­gurt com­pany to south­cen­tral Idaho, a re­gion em­broiled in the na­tional de­bate over refugee re­set­tle­ment that spread to com­pany boy­cotts by farright blog­gers and con­spir­acy the­o­rists.

“I hear the con­ver­sa­tions here and there, but it’s a peace­ful com­mu­nity that we all love,” said Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turk­ish im­mi­grant. “It’s the home of Chobani.”

Ulukaya spoke to The As­so­ci­ated Press be­fore last week’s an­nounce­ment of a $20 mil­lion ex­pan­sion of the com­pany’s fa­cil­ity in the city of Twin Falls — the world’s largest yo­gurt plant — to serve as its global re­search and de­vel­op­ment cen­ter tack­ling how yo­gurt is made and con­sumed.

It’s a project Ulukaya says he has been plan­ning for sev­eral years. As to what in­no­va­tions the com­pany plans for the 70,000square-foot fa­cil­ity, Ulukaya isn’t shar­ing yet. He said the fo­cus will be on of­fer­ing nat­u­ral and non­syn­thetic prod­ucts.

The project fol­lows a series of ex­pan­sion ef­forts by Chobani since open­ing its Idaho plant in 2012. The $450 mil­lion, 1-mil­lion­square-foot plant is the com­pany’s sec­ond af­ter Ulukaya started Chobani in New York.

The com­pany em­ploys 2,000 work­ers, in­clud­ing 300 refugees.

How­ever, Chobani’s time in Idaho also has taken a darker turn as anti-im­mi­grant ad­vo­cates have seized on the com­pany’s open stance on refugees. Fringe web­sites have falsely claimed that Ulukaya wanted to “drown the United States in Mus­lims.”

Other web­sites, like Bre­it­bart News, falsely at­tempted to link Chobani’s hir­ing of refugees to an uptick in tu­ber­cu­lo­sis cases in Idaho.

To coun­ter­act the hate­ful rhetoric, Chobani sued right-wing ra­dio host Alex Jones ear­lier this year, say­ing that Jones and his In­foWars web­site posted fab­ri­cated sto­ries link­ing Ulukaya and the com­pany to a sex­ual as­sault case in­volv­ing refugee chil­dren in Twin Falls.

Jones orig­i­nally promised to never back down in his fight against the yo­gurt gi­ant but even­tu­ally re­tracted his state­ments in a set­tle­ment.

Ulukaya de­clined to com­ment on the Jones law­suit but said the rise in anti-refugee sen­ti­ment has never de­layed a project he wanted to pur­sue. And he says he is com­mit­ted to be­ing a wel­com­ing com­pany.

“Don’t leave any­one out,” he said. “At Chobani, we be­lieve in sec­ond chances.”

Strong eco­nomic growth in south-cen­tral Idaho — an agri­cul­ture-dom­i­nant area dubbed the Magic Val­ley — led Ulukaya to de­scribe the re­gion as the “Sil­i­con Val­ley of food,” point­ing to the wide range of food man­u­fac­tur­ing plants that have in­vested in food sci­ence since Chobani moved to the state.

“It’s an ecosys­tem gen­er­ated for food mak­ing,” he said. “There’s now a gen­eral knowl­edge around food sci­ence that wasn’t there 10 years ago.”

The boon ex­tends to Chobani’s Idaho work­ers, who earn an av­er­age of $15 an hour, more than twice the min­i­mum wage of $7.25.

PAT SUTPHIN/THE TIMES-NEWS

Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya ad­dresses the crowd dur­ing the ground­break­ing cer­e­mony for a new re­search and de­vel­op­ment build­ing last week in Twin Falls, Idaho.

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