In the latest installment of FoodNavigator-USA’s What do you do series, we talked with Kai Sacher, head of global product development at leading yogurt manufacturer Chobani, about his roots on Austrian dairy farms, the importance of timing in new product launches, and why simplicity isn't always so ... simple.
Tell us about your current role at Chobani.
As vice president of R&D Chobani Global, I’m responsible for all product development actions worldwide, including:
- Leading the long-term roadmap for Chobani’s product and process innovation
- managing the prototyping, piloting and industrialization, and
- overseeing new product development and portfolio management to market launch.
How did you get into the R&D side of the food and beverage industry?
I was raised in the Austrian Alps, surrounded by dairy farms. As a young boy, I worked on those farms and really embraced the lifestyle. Back then, the farms were totally self-sufficient. They didn’t buy food—they raised it.
The exposure to this wholesome lifestyle really stuck with me. When it was time to go to university, I decided to continue in an area that made such an impression on me as a child.I got a master’s of science in food technology from the Technical University of Munich, with a specialization in dairy.
Before joining Chobani, I spent 18 years as the R&D manager with Dannon, establishing worldwide R&D centers in Spain, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and India. Additionally, I have a lot of working experience in operations and marketing.
What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your job?
The most rewarding for me is taking a product from start to finish. In the lab, you conceptually create a new idea—something no one else has thought of—but will it work? You take it to the production line, you make adjustments and recalculations. There is a lot of back and forth and then…success. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a delicious, nutritious new product come to fruition.
The most challenging part? Going back to my farm roots—simplicity is best. I apply that theory to my yogurt creations. But, simplicity isn’t always simple! It’s very challenging to create the right balance of flavors and textures with as few ingredients as possible. But…we do it. That’s why we say ‘how matters’. And, we’re really trying to inspire and influence others in the food industry to simplify, as well.
Is there such thing as a typical day for you? If so, what does it look like?
One of the reasons I love this job is because there are no ‘typical’ days. But, I can tell you this—I eat a lot of yogurt!
In R&D, it’s our job to constantly push the envelope and you can’t do that with just your brain…you have to engage your taste buds. For that very reason, we are continuously developing prototypes. We can brainstorm and theorize and write down potential recipes, but until you put the ingredients together and sample it with your senses – you can’t know what success tastes like.
On a personal note, I try to jump on my bike at the end of the day and tackle one of the beautiful mountains that surround our facility. By disengaging my brain and engaging my muscles, I find a lot of clarity and creativity comes my way.
What does it take for a product to hit it big, as Greek yogurt has in the US market in recent years?
I can only speak for Chobani, but, first and foremost, it has to taste great! It also needs to be nutritious, feature simple ingredients, have differentiating qualities and it has to be affordable to the consumer.
Before Chobani entered the market, companies really only marketed to women or their products were uninspired. When our CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya came on the scene, he really analyzed the market, identified the gaps and targeted the new opportunities. One of the things he learned is that you can’t ‘ask’ the consumer what they want, you have to create it for them and give them new options.
Hamdi stressed the need for great taste coming from simple ingredients, which seemed to have been lost in the mainstream markets. Hamdi, being of Turkish descent, also really understands yogurt as a daily staple. It’s not just a snack you pack in your kids’ lunchbox; in many cultures it’s a key ingredient to daily nutrition.
For Chobani’s success, I think our leadership has vision, our product has amazing flavor and the market is craving a change.
What's the most interesting or memorable Greek yogurt product that didn't get commercialized by Chobani?
Ah—now you’re tapping into my secrets! We have a lot of products that have not yet been commercialized for a variety of reasons. But none has been thrown in the trash. Sometimes you just have to wait for the right time to launch a product. Also, part of our commitment is to educate the market as we introduce new products. For example, we’re producing several higher-fat yogurts right now. A decade ago, that was unheard of. So, part of our timing relies on where the market’s appetite is.
How has working in the packaged food industry impacted your personal food philosophy?
My feelings about food were really formulated during my childhood experiences and exposure to such fresh, simple, farm-raised goodness. My time with Chobani has only further enhanced that. We are striving for the same thing.
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