Hamdi Ulukaya is the model American immigrant success story.
In 2005, the Turkish-born Kurdish entrepreneur purchased a defunct Kraft foods plant in upstate New York with an $800,000 loan from the Small Business Administration. In just a few years, his Chobani yogurt went from selling a few containers at a Long Island kosher grocery to being the No. 1 selling yogurt brand in the country with annual revenue topping $1.5 billion. In addition to employing more than 2,000 people directly—all of whom earn above minimum wage and enjoy generous benefits—the company purchases 4 million pounds of milk from American farmers every day.
Ulukaya dotes on his employees like a parent. “To me, there are two kinds of people in this world,” he told The New York Times. “The people who work at Chobani and the people who don’t.” Earlier this year, he gave shares amounting to 10 percent of Chobani to his workers; a rare move for a CEO to make after the value of his highly profitable company has been established. Chobani is also a corporate sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team. Not bad for a Turkish guy selling Greek yogurt—that in itself a subtle rebuke to centuries of enmity between the two countries.
In addition to earning a raft of honorary Ph.Ds., Ulukaya has been named a World Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, is the recipient of the United Nations Global Leadership Award, and has committed himself to Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge,” promising to donate at least half of his wealth to charity. To that end, Ulukaya founded an organization called Tent, which assists refugees in achieving new lives. Ulukaya, who grew up in a town near the Syrian border, says he was inspired in his activism by the plight of the some 2 million Syrians now living in Turkish refugee camps.
And that’s where the nativist forces supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign enter the picture. In 2012, Chobani opened the world’s biggest yogurt plant, in Twin Falls, Idaho. In addition to being one of the country’s largest milk-producing states, Idaho also happens to be one of the five highest refugee-absorbing states per capita, due to its low cost of living and 3.9 percent unemployment rate. About 30 percent of Chobani’s Twin Falls work force is composed of refugees, a hiring practice that originated with the company’s first factory in upstate New York, where many members of the community had been resettled from places like Vietnam, Burma, and Nepal. Ulukaya has written of the “growing need for the private sector to step up and help use its innovation, voice, and resources to address the global forced migration crisis,” and hiring refugees to work in Chobani’s factories has been his way of putting his money where his mouth is.
For his humanitarianism and thinking outside the traditional corporate box, Ulukaya now stands at the center of a vicious smear campaign. Earlier this year, in a piece originally headlined “American Yogurt Tycoon Vows to Choke U.S. With Muslims,” a writer for the far-right conspiracy-mongering website World Net Daily falsely claimed that refugees were being sent to Twin Falls specifically for the purpose of working at the Chobani plant and that Ulukaya was “call[ing] on [the] biggest American companies to join [an] Islamic surge.” (That line was later removed from the piece, as was the headline, since changed to the slightly less inflammatory “U.S. Yogurt Billionaire Asks Businesses to Hire More Foreign Refugees.”) The allegations have since migrated to the similarly paranoid precincts of Breitbart.com, the “alt-right” repository of white nationalism and xenophobia whose former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, recently merged seamlessly into the Trump campaign as its CEO. At Breitbart, the story of Chobani’s refugee employees has taken on new life as the centerpiece of a broader intrigue. For the past month, Breitbart reporter Lee Stranahan has been filing dispatch after dispatch from the Idaho town alleging a nexus of disease, rape, and jihad—all with Chobani and Ulukaya at its center.
In breathless tones, Stranahan, who according to his Twitter bio recently relocated to Twin Falls, attacks Ulukaya as a “globalist corporatist,” two epithets that, in the newfangled dialect of Breitbartian-Trumpian nationalism, signify one’s dubious, non-American loyalties. According to Stranahan, refugee resettlement in Twin Falls is “a situation connected to the drive for cheap labor by the local food processing industry that Chobani is a major part of.”
Another author writing at Breitbart claims that Idaho has “been a popular destination for refugees in recent years… in large part due to Ulukaya’s efforts to import refugees to work in his yogurt factory” and that Ulukaya is “a figure of controversy for his decision to fill his yogurt plants with foreign refugees rather than unemployed Americans. (Eds: An earlier version of this article incorrectly credited those quotes to Stranahan.)
But Idaho’s status as a destination for refugees dates back to the arrival of Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, long before the Chobani plant broke ground in 2011. Since then, the state has welcomed about 30,000 refugees from more than 50 countries. Falsely accusing Chobani and its CEO of “importing” foreign labor conflates a long-standing federal refugee resettlement program with the relatively recent hiring decisions of a private company.
This isn’t Breitbart’s only conflation with respect to the yogurt plant. Another story, under the non sequitur headline “TB spiked 500 percent in Twin Falls during 2012, as Chobani Yogurt Opened Plant,” insinuates that the company is somehow responsible for a tuberculosis epidemic in the Idaho hamlet. Never mind that the increase in TB cases exclusively ascribed to Twin Falls actually occurred across an eight-county public health district; there exists no evidence that any of the TB cases in Twin Falls were Chobani employees, or even refugees, for that matter. Furthermore, the “500 percent” “spike” consists of an increase from one case in 2011 to six in 2012, back down to a single case last year.
The most sensational component of Breitbart’s “special report” concerns an inappropriate sexual encounter, misleadingly labeled a “gang rape,” involving three refugee minors and a 5-year-old Twin Falls girl in June. Local anti-Muslim activists seized upon the incident, which is under investigation by authorities, and launched a campaign to discredit the entire refugee resettlement program, which Stranahan ominously labels “Idaho’s Globalist Devil’s Bargain.” Last month, a white nationalist organization called the American Freedom Party issued robocalls across Idaho informing listeners that the “nonwhite invasion of their state and all white areas constitutes white genocide.” (This is the same racist outfit that endorsed Trump, calling him the “Great White Hope,” and paid for robocalls on his behalf in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses.)
In a piece headlined “Twin Falls Refugee Rape Special Report: Why are the Refugees Moving In?” Stranahan writes that the use of refugee labor by Chobani and other food companies in southern Idaho has led to unspecified “civic consequences,” the insinuation being that these businesses are somehow responsible for the June incident and that the entire refugee resettlement program should be scrapped on account of the behavior of three refugee children.
Given how much Trump and Breitbart bemoan the loss of manufacturing to overseas competition and extol America’s rural values, one might have expected the populist website to applaud Chobani’s employing thousands of Americans in well-paid jobs and support for the country’s agricultural sector. “This has been a shot in the arm,” the head of a Twin Falls paving company said back in 2011, when Chobani broke ground on its plant.
“The kind of success that Chobani is experiencing in the Magic Valley is setting a great example of regional collaboration between employers and community leaders throughout Idaho,” Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter enthused earlier this year, after the company announced a $100 million expansion to build a global research and development center in Twin Falls. “And it has economic development leaders all over America standing up and taking notice of what Idaho has to offer.”
Ultimately, however, the unfounded and hysterical attacks on Chobani, its employees, and its visionary founder are a perfect distillation of Breitbart and the presidential campaign onto which it has so shamelessly hitched itself. A toxic mix of lies, innuendo, xenophobia, and resentment, these screeds exemplify a zero-sum worldview in which gains made by the foreign-born must, somehow, come at the expense of “real” Americans, who, by the way, don’t need your stinking, healthy, low-sugar, gluten-free, kosher, halal, foreign yogurt.
Hamdi Ulukaya’s business ethics—fair, compassionate, cosmopolitan—are a direct repudiation of Donald Trump’s cutthroat, selfish, racist greed. And perhaps that’s what grates Breitbart most about this green card-holding, tax-paying Turkish immigrant and the business he built from scratch. For at its heart, the Trump phenomenon is a revolt of the thuggishly second-rate, a collection of mediocrities and opportunists for whom dragging down their betters provides a fillip to wallowing alone in self-pity.