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16 Handles is a lifestyle brand first, froyo franchise second

Why a frozen yogurt franchise is about so much more than the flavors 

By Rachel Cieri 

A Q&A with Solomon Choi, CEO of 16 Handles 

Sometimes it seems as though a new frozen yogurt shop pops up every other week. In fact, when Solomon Choi opened his first 16 Handles in the East Village, “there were about eight competitors within four street blocks,” he says. But the froyo franchisor outlasted them all — 16 Handles currently operates 40 locations in six states and is poised to open 50 new stores before the end of the year.

And Choi, a 30-something California native, knows the secret to longevity is about much more than yogurt. With a heavy emphasis on community engagement (including a partnership with nonprofit Trees for the Future and an extensive social media campaign), the company is moving past its growing pains with the goal of becoming a “lifestyle brand.”

“There’s a reason why people are buying into it,” he says of the lifestyle brands that inspired him, like Starbucks and Apple, “and it’s not just because they make the best product.”

Q: How have you adapted to the New York market?

The New York consumer is much more fast-paced, impatient and willing to give you a piece of their mind. [The self-serve model] really caught on — I opened on Thursday, and on Saturday there was a line out my door. I’m not the smartest guy, I don’t have the most experience, but if you reach out to the customers, they tell you the answers.

Q: How did you settle on that first location?

I walked from Wall Street to Times Square — East Side, West Side, daytime, nighttime. I didn’t know New York. If you’re on the wrong side of the avenue, that could make or break your business. I ended up opening where most of the NYU freshman dorms are located. That’s thousands of new customers every fall semester, and I could keep them for the next four years.

Q: What do you look for in a franchisee?

NYU students would bring their parents. Our first few franchises [were] parents of our customers. I look for a brand partner. I worked for Enterprise Rent-a-Car in their manager training program. The message was to take care of the customer, take care of your people, and profit and growth will follow. That’s what I want.

Q: How do you stand out from the froyo shop down the street?

We were the first self-serve franchise; nowadays, that’s the common model.

We can change our flavors until the end of time, but anyone can copy those flavors. That’s not our differentiator. How can I [have] people still coming into my stores in the winter, when everyone else is empty or closing? We combat that drop-off by creating a lounge-like experience. I would hear people on their cell phones: “Hey, we’re at 16 Handles. Why don’t you come by?”

Q: And the lifestyle message is, “Flaunt your flavor?”

We all come in different flavors, and we have different preferences. Whatever makes you tick, that’s what you should celebrate. One of the ways I instilled that was [to] allow employees to wear whatever hat they want. If I can’t be authentic to my own people, why would they drive this message?

Q: What challenges have you overcome as you’ve grown?

Not making the investment to hire great people around me prior to that growth. I would have made that investment before so that we weren’t playing catch up. Then it was trusting those people and giving them the autonomy to make decisions. When it was just the one store, it was me calling all the shots. If I continued to go that route, the system would collapse. CEO

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This article was originally published in the July/August issue of New York SmartCEO magazine.
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