NEW YORK -- Yogurt companies are looking to cultivate Americans' taste for dairy.
The country's top Greek yogurt maker, Chobani, is opening up its first "yogurt bar" in New York City as it looks to strengthen its position in a rapidly growing market. Dannon, a longtime industry giant, also opened up a shop in New York City earlier this month called The Yogurt Culture Company, which serves both fresh Greek and traditional varieties.
The two companies say there are no plans yet for additional locations. But such flagship stores can add luster to a brand and help build loyal fan bases, which will be critical at a time when tastes are shifting and competition is intensifying.
Sales of Greek yogurt have more than doubled over the past five years to $1.6 billion, now accounting for about 21 percent of yogurt sales, according to Euromonitor International. That's up from 1.5 percent in 2006.
Unlike the thinner, more sugary yogurts that dominated U.S. supermarket shelves for years, Greek yogurt has a thicker consistency because of the way it's strained. For many, a big part of the attraction is that it's also low in fat and high in protein. Given its versatility in sweet and savory dishes, companies also see plenty of room for growth.
"We want to open up the horizon for the way people look at yogurt in the U.S.," says Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani's founder and CEO. "When it comes to yogurt, America is underdeveloped."
At the Chobani store in Manhattan's trendy Soho neighborhood, there are no make-it-yourself options, as with many frozen yogurt shops where customers can pile on their own toppings. The menu will instead offer a set list of creations developed by Ulukaya, such as one that has chopped figs and walnuts with honey drizzled on top. Savory options -- like yogurt with cucumbers or olive oil -- are also available.
Orders are served in glass bowls, in single (6 ounces) or double (12 ounces) sizes for $3.75 or $4.75. Customers are given recipe cards with their orders, and can buy the ingredients such as olive oil and fruits at the store. By encouraging customers to make such yogurt dishes on their own, the idea is to make the Chobani sold in supermarkets more of a household staple.
Over at the Yogurt Culture Company near Grand Central, the philosophy is that allowing for customization will lead to growth.
"Today, you can order myriad types of coffee at a cafe," said Michael Neuwirth, a spokesman for Dannon. "We believe the same concept can apply to yogurt."
Customers can pick from traditional or Greek yogurt (more people opt for the latter) and add any amount of toppings for a set price of $5.49 for a 5-ounce cup.
"What we sell is unlike anything we sell in a supermarket," Neuwirth said, noting that yogurt is fresh and made with just milk and cultures, and no preservatives.
At Chobani, Ulukaya says his carefully choreographed dishes reflect the various ways he ate yogurt while growing up in Turkey. But there is one distinctly American option that stands out: a yogurt generously topped with thick peanut butter and jelly.
Ulukaya says that one wasn't his idea -- but he thinks it can reach kids or those not accustomed to the tart taste of Greek yogurt. As with the other creations, it's artfully served in a glass bowl and topped with sliced grapes and peanut halves for crunch.
"Maybe we can get Turkish people to like this one," Ulukaya said.