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Chobani Founder Gets Threats, Calls for Boycott for Employing Refugees

The criticism is driven primarily by members of the extreme right, who have latched onto Chobani's business practices in this contentious election.
Chobani Greek Yogurt at the Chobani SoHo Café.
Chobani Greek Yogurt at the Chobani SoHo Café.John Minchillo / AP, file

Calls to boycott yogurt giant Chobani have proliferated as the company has welcomed refugees into its two factories, located in the generally conservative areas of upstate New York and Idaho.

"Be sure you boycott Chobani Yogurt! That Muzzie that owns it is hell bent on filling Idaho with Muslims," one critic tweeted last month.

Image: Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit - Day 1
Founder/chairman/CEO of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, speaks onstage during "Letter from Chobani: A Culture of Sharing" at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 19, 2016 in San Francisco, California.Mike Windle / Getty Images

When Hamdi Ulukaya came to the United States, the Turkish immigrant made a modest living selling homemade feta cheese. Now, Ulukaya is a self-made billionaire thanks to Chobani, the yogurt empire he founded in 2007.

And the CEO of the nation's number one-selling Greek yogurt wants to give other immigrants a shot at the American Dream, too. So, over the years, he has hired 300 refugees. He also started a refugee advocacy foundation, Tent, through which he enlists other companies to employ struggling migrants who flee the European border crisis.

"The private sector has a powerful incentive to find new solutions to a crisis that cannot be solved by governments and goodwill alone," Ulukaya wrote in an editorial back in January.

But not everyone is buying it — literally. One detractor tweeted in September that Chobani is "truly #horrible & #nasty [like Hillary Clinton]," and urged people to never purchase its yogurt again.

Related: Chobani Offers Moms, Dads 6 Weeks of Parental Leave at Full Pay

The criticism has included death threats, and is driven primarily by members of the extreme right, who have latched onto Chobani's business practices as an election issue — even though Ulukaya has actually employed refugees for about five years. (His first hires were from Myanmar.)

Chobani and Ulukaya declined to comment on the backlash, which has swelled during this particularly prickly election season and worsened after conservative sites like Breitbart News published negative stories on Chobani. The stories make questionable claims, connecting Chobani refugee hires with rapes and a spike in tuberculosis, although evidence actually tying them together is lacking.

But experts don't think Chobani sales will sour.

"Frankly, I think they'll probably increase their sales," Andrew Novakovic, a Cornell University professor of agricultural economics whose research focuses on dairy foods, told NBC News. "The people who were complaining probably weren't buying their product anyway."

In the local communities where Chobani operates its two plants — New Berlin, New York; and Twin Falls, Idaho, both Republican-leaning areas — the feeling toward the yogurt giant is overwhelmingly positive.

Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar has voiced his support for Chobani, despite having received death threats himself.

And in New Berlin, a town of just over 2,800 located about 55 miles from Binghamton, most of the community applauds Chobani, said town clerk Deborah Collins-Barker.

"I have heard a very small amount of negative backlash," Collins-Barker told NBC News. "But they've done a lot for the community and they're always looking out for the community, so I think the positive has definitely outweighed any negative backlash."

"Chobani is still the leader and the innovator."

If anything, she said, Chobani has helped New Berlin become more open to new ideas.

"Even though we are a very small community, extremely rural, we've actually become very forward-moving," she said. "We have a lot of residents work there, and if they're the younger generation and they're going to be moving on to a city atmosphere, they're kind of already getting a taste of a company that's moving with the times."

While Fage was first to bring Greek yogurt to the U.S., Chobani took a more aggressive, ambitious approach to marketing and has consistently edged out its competitors. Its recipe for success has always been rooted in its ability to differentiate itself, according to Novakovic.

"Yogurt has come in different flavors forever, but not a lot of product differentiation," he said.

"Fage took a different path, and I think that's why Chobani had the success more than Fage did. Chobani is still the leader and the innovator," Novakovic said.

Ulukaya, 44, pays his refugees above minimum wage — part of his broader campaign to treat employees well.

Last month, Chobani made headlines after announcing it would give six weeks of 100 percent paid parental leave to both mothers and fathers. Back in April, Ulukaya surprised workers with news that he was giving employees a 10 percent stake in the company when it goes public or is sold.

Ulukaya said Tuesday at Fast Company's Innovation Festival in New York that he's as committed as ever to helping refugees.

"We're looking at this landscape in the world today, and it doesn't matter where you are — in upstate New York, Turkey, Germany, whatever — you just cannot sit still," he said.