Q&A: Solomon Choi, CEO, 16 Handles Frozen Yogurt Franchise

Solomon Choi, CEO, 16 Handles Frozen Yogurt Franchise
Solomon Choi, CEO, 16 Handles Frozen Yogurt Franchise

Frozen yogurt continues to be a hot industry and all signs point toward continued growth as we head into the warmer days of summer.  In honor of National Frozen Yogurt Month, which takes place each June, we spoke with Solomon Choi, founder of 16 Handles, to find out what’s sizzling hot in the world of one of America’s coolest snacks and desserts – Fro-Yo!

What’s trending in the frozen yogurt/ confection industry?

The self-serve business model continues to dominate. More QSR/food-focused concepts are realizing that when you bring the guest into the experience magic happens. Today it’s all about letting guests choose what they want how they want it. The return is a stronger guest connection and increased loyalty. From a trend perspective we’re also seeing several takes on the explosion of “cake” dominant flavors – think Red Velvet, Carrot, Pound Cake and Graham Cracker frozen yogurt, along with menu extensions in the “mini” space with frozen cake bites and juice-based popsicles. At 16 Handles, we’re doing something unique with artisan toppings and have recently appointed a head chef who is busy creating micro batch toppings like Smoked Almond Brittle and a new granola that’s going to make our guests say “wow!”

With so many concepts adopting the self-serve model, what does a frozen yogurt brand need to do to stand out today?

Three words – engage the customer. Smart brands are utilizing technology and apps to extend the guest experience in store and via the web. Media screens and iPads are replacing traditional signage in ways that lend to better guest interaction. At 16 Handles, we recently launched a fun social engagement that allowed our brand fans to put themselves front and center in our Flaunt Your Flavor campaign by creating personalized posters from their personal photo library and sharing them on Facebook. Everyone loved it!

Who is today’s frozen yogurt consumer and how does geography play into the mix?

16 Handles Frozen YogurtIt may go against marketing 101, but frozen yogurt really is a product with universal appeal. We attract everyone from children to seniors because we’re a better-for-you snack or dessert that offers positive nutrition. Frozen yogurt today is different than what it represented in the late 80’s. Children are drawn to the “fun” and great taste, while adults appreciate the portion control that self-serve offers. If you layer that with toppings that range from fresh fruits and nuts to syrups and candies, and flavors from Greek yogurt to Cake Batter, and frozen yogurt truly means something different to everyone.

Geographically suburban towns tend to have higher late afternoon and early evening traffic as schools let out and people leave work. On the flip side metro stores experience stronger early day part and night traffic with less guest visits in the afternoon. Stores located in college towns, or that appeal to students, tend to become gathering spots as our later hours support the social aspects of nightlife.

Give us your top three social media tips?

  1. Listen to the customer by making your dialogue two-way – don’t just push content, discover ways to pull consumers into the conversation. There are plenty of outlets like Yelp, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest where you can glean a lot of information about what your customer has to say.
  2. Don’t go overboard with messaging. Your brand fans don’t need to be overloaded with a set amount of posts or Tweets every day. Create a schedule that makes sense and commit to keeping within themes that make conversations relevant and fun.
  3. Figure out clever ways to highlight what makes you special and look like a leader. 16 Handles recently polled 350+ consumers asking about their snacking and dessert preferences. We turned that data into a fun infographic that was shared across our social profiles. The reaction was great and gave people something to talk about.

Operationally speaking what innovations do you see affecting the frozen yogurt experience?

Mobile technology is already transforming how loyalty programs work. This is trickling into the gift card and e-payment spaces as more virtual apps and e-wallet options launch. Improved equipment solutions are also being introduced every day. New innovations are giving frozen yogurt operators enhanced capabilities to gain digital control over temperature and product flow, making it easier to put more product into more customers’ cups.

Where do you see the industry a year from now?

There will be continued growth in new markets and periods of oversaturation in markets were frozen yogurt is already prevalent. As with any industry, the market can only support a limited number of yogurt shops and smart operators will prevail. Those focusing on building a brand that is linked to a high quality experience will survive. An advantage will also go to stores that can leverage cost and operational efficiencies based on volume, such as franchises and multi unit chains. In the end, the customer will continue to be the one to vote with his/her wallet and will connect with those brands that keep them engaged.

What markets do you see as ripe for expansion? How is 16 Handles “handling” its growth strategy?

16 Handles Self-Service Frozen YogurtMarkets that offer critical mass across all day parts will remain the most desirable. And since frozen yogurt is no longer new, concepts shouldn’t be scared to enter a market if they believe they can offer a better self-serve experience. At 16 Handles, we’re talking with new potential franchise operators all the time. We’re proactively looking at sites in Staten Island and Westchester NY, as well as multiple locations across New Jersey, New England, and Philadelphia. We’re also forecasting that 16 Handles will practically double in size over the next six months as more stores open across New York (Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Lynbrook and in Murray Hill and SoHo,) New Jersey (Summit and Hoboken,) the Boston metro (Brookline, MA) and Stamford, Connecticut. We have aggressive development plans in place for markets like Boston, Washington, D.C. and South Florida, and are looking to grow our presence across New England, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Chicago. Anyone who thinks they can “handle” being part of the 16 Handles family, can visit http://16handles.com/franchise.php.

Solomon Choi is the founder of 16 Handles, a premium self-service frozen yogurt concept with 23 locations across New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and Florida. 16 Handles was first to pioneer the self-service frozen yogurt concept in New York City by offering 16 flavors of premium frozen yogurt, along with a complementary toppings bar featuring more than 50 items. The company continues to expand rapidly and forecasts that 43 stores will be open by the end of 2012. An eco-conscious company committed to sustainability, 16 Handles uses biodegradable packaging and spoons, while each store plants 16 trees per day though an ongoing partnership with Trees for the Future. For more information visit http://www.16handles.com, Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/16Handles) or Twitter (@16Handles).