Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 17 September 2010 00:00
Once upon a time, in the mid-1990s, frozen yogurt shops like TCBY and Yogurt ‘N Such battled for dominance in the strip malls and shopping centers of Long Island, and beyond. For some mysterious reason, the popularity of the frozen treat soon waned in favor of more traditional ice cream, and the neighborhood frozen yogurt shop (or three) seemed to have become a thing of the past. However, with 16 Handles now open for business in Jericho and other stores like Red Mango already well ensconced in several nearby locations, it would appear that the second wave of what can only be called the Frozen Yogurt Invasion has come to town.
On Saturday, Sept. 11, 16 Handles officially celebrated its grand opening at its new Jericho store, located at Jericho Plaza right near other popular local eateries like Bagel Boss and Mama Felicia Pizza. Shiny new LCD screens, installed only the previous day, displayed the nutrition facts for a wide variety of yogurt flavors, while adults and children alike clustered around the eatery’s namesake 16 handles and devoured frozen yogurt like it was going out of style.
However, if frozen yogurt is truly in any danger of going out of style - again- there’s certainly no sign of it from where franchise owner Solomon Choi is sitting.
Backstory: FroYo vs. Gelato
University of Southern California graduate Solomon Choi got into the frozen yogurt business by way of another popular frozen treat: Gelato. In 2005, Choi was part of a restaurant start-up specializing in the creamy Italian dessert. However, customers seemed to be lukewarm on the gelato concept as the digestive benefits of yogurt- with its healthy probiotics- became more widely known. “From a business standpoint, it made it harder to sell the gelato franchise when everyone wanted frozen yogurt,” remembered Choi.
Intrigued, Choi learned the ins and outs of the yogurt business from a friend who had operated a self-serve yogurt store in Newport News, California, since the early ’90s. “When I checked out his concept, I thought ‘this is genius, this is giving the people what they want.’ They can control their own portions, they’re not limited to just one or two flavors. So I thought ‘okay, this is a great concept.’ I wanted to put a modern twist to it, because, you know, it looked like it was from the late ’80s, early ’90s,” said Choi.
Choi credits the chain Pinkberry with bringing back the frozen yogurt trend, with a modern twist, in 2006. However, Choi didn’t merely want to copy the success of Pinkberry, but improve upon it; rather than offer the same line of primarily tart yogurt flavors, he wanted to offer more and sweeter flavors, making the frozen yogurt experience more comparable to eating soft-serve ice cream- albeit less fattening.
For Choi, the new understanding of yogurt’s potential as a health food is what sets entities like his store apart from the frozen yogurt retailers customers may remember from 20 years ago. “Back then, it was really just an alternative to ice cream; I mean, it didn’t really focus on the health benefits. The products nowadays- including our product- contain the live active cultures, contain pro-biotics, which are really the elements that make it a healthy product,” he said.
Another thing that sets the brand apart is the focus on the customer rather than the product; the experience is more about the customer crafting the product they want than anything else, explained Choi. It’s the emphasis on choice that Choi believes renders his model superior to competitors like Red Mango, which, according to Choi, has had to close many of its Manhattan locations recently. “I think the reason for that is not necessarily that they have a bad product, but people prefer this type of a format,” he said.
With the concept ironed out, Choi decided to name his store 16 Handles to best appeal to the largely female demographic; not only does the number 16 exemplify the brand’s focus on choices, but “Sweet” sixteen is a very important number for girls and women. In 2008, the first 16 Handles store opened at 153 Second Ave. in the East Village.
“Good thing it’s not ‘Sweet 15’, because it would be hard to have an odd number of flavors,” said Choi with a laugh.
“Brittany got us into the business,” said Susan Cohen, referring to her daughter, who busily prepped the toppings bar while her mother spoke. Bruce and Susan Cohen first visited the first 16 Handles store while visiting their daughter at New York University in November of 2008, and realized immediately that Choi was onto something. In December of 2009, Bruce Cohen signed on as a franchiser with his friend Scott Silverman. Silverman, a businessman looking for a new venture at the time, had seen the success of competitor Red Mango in the area, and thought that Jericho was a perfect location for the brand. While Bruce Cohen plans to open up five more stores in Manhattan, it made more sense to the partners to start with the suburban location.
“It’s a lot easier to do business on Long Island than in New York City,” said Bruce Cohen.
The Jericho Plaza location, located at 22 Jericho Turnpike, was considered the best available at the time; the partners did investigate the possibility of opening the store in nearby Birchwood Shopping Center on North Broadway, also in Jericho, however according to Cohen and Silverman, that was not possible due to terms of the lease for supermarket Whole Foods, which prevents new food retailers from opening in that area.
While the East Village store remains the flagship 16 Handles location, the Jericho store is far from the simple country cousin of its Manhattan sibling; in fact, changes made by Silverman and the Cohens to adapt the brand to their area were so well-received by the company, they are now part of the franchise. Features like larger seating areas and fixtures made from recycled materials will be standard for new 16 Handles locations from this point on.
In some respects, the demographic difference between suburban Jericho and Manhattan makes for a different experience at the store. According to the owners, the Jericho store sells on average more yogurts per order than the Manhattan store due to the number of customers who buy yogurt for their entire families, and people are far more inclined to sit down and enjoy their treat, as opposed to buying a cup and running back to the office.
Different products also take priority; the Jericho store sells far more waffle cones than the Manhattan store, since the customer base in the area includes far more children. In addition, due to more freezer space, the Jericho location also stocks made-on-the-premises yogurt cakes, not available in the flagship store.
The more child-centric focus of the Jericho store will also be evident once the store starts holding birthday parties; the owners said they are still in the process of arranging food and entertainment for children’s parties. Since the store does not have a party room, the store will have to be blocked off at times for the kid-friendly celebrations, with the caveat that the owners do not wish to inconvenience the walk-in customers; Cohen’s upcoming store on the Upper West Side will have a party room, however. The owners said that it’s too early to tell what percentage of the 16 Handles business in Jericho will be devoted to birthday parties, but it’s definitely a service that they are pursuing.
The location underwent a ‘soft open’ from Wednesday Sept. 1, to Friday, Sept. 10, allowing time for the staff to be trained. Without the need to serve the customers themselves, the staff at 16 Handles is trained on the register, and to provide better service by keeping the location as clean as possible.
Currently, there are three 16 Handles locations: 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, Jericho, and Paramus, NJ. Bruce Cohen will soon be opening several Manhattan locations: one on the Upper East Side, two on the Upper West Side, Chelsea and Murray Hill. Silverman is focusing on opening more Long Island stores in locations that are not yet finalized, while corporate is looking to set up shop in Soho and the West Village. There are also two other franchisers in the process of opening new locations: one in Gaithersburg, MD and one in Saratoga Springs, NY.
Meanwhile, Choi plans to continue focusing on the brand’s strength: connecting to customers and tailoring the experience to their preferences, in part by utilizing social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to communicate directly with customers. According to Choi, he responds personally to every fan comment or question on the brand’s Facebook account.
“I think it’s very important as a new and emerging brand to have that kind of close connection with your customers,” said Choi of his focus on social media.
While the details are still under wraps, Choi said that there are plans to expand the website to the point where each store will have its own microsite- rather than just a list of contact information, fans will be able to visit the Jericho store’s page and find out what flavors are on tap for that day, as well as view pictures of yogurt creations made in-store.
As far as the competition in the land of yogurt is concerned, according to the Red Mango website, self-service is coming soon to many locations. A manager from the Massapequa Red Mango said that he could not comment on 16 Handles statements about their business model without permission from corporate; the marketing department of the corporate office in Dallas, Texas did not immediately return calls from Anton Newspapers. No one answered multiple calls from Anton Newspapers at the store’s Plainview location.
For more information about 16 Handles, visit the website at www.16Handles.com. In addition, visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/16Handles to see the creative entries in the ongoing “Prettiest Yogurt” contest.