One of the hottest trends in the retail foodservice industry right now, ironically, involves a cold treat. The rise of self-service frozen yogurt has been one of the most interesting stories to emerge in recent years, and between the established names and the mom-and-pop operations there are plenty of concepts all jostling for attention.
16 Handles CEO Solomon Choi understands this, and says it takes more than just setting up a few frozen yogurt machines and putting out a few toppings to stand apart from the competition. Fortunately for 16 Handles, Choi says, the brand has a unique vibe that sets it apart from imitators, and that plus its high-quality and innovative frozen desserts and snacks will help it expand beyond its home base in the Northeast.
Choi started 16 Handles in 2008 after spending nearly his whole life in the restaurant business. His parents were franchisees of Japanese restaurants on the West Coast, and Choi spent time with a start-up hospitality group in Los Angeles. During that time, Choi took notice of the rise of Pinkberry and its self-service frozen yogurt concept. “That sort of changed the trajectory of frozen desserts in a retail setting,” he notes.
With the guidance of a family friend who had been operating a similar frozen yogurt concept since the 1990s, Choi brought the model to New York City’s East Village neighborhood with the first 16 Handles location. The company started franchising in 2010, and today the chain has 38 locations in six states. Choi says 16 Handles intends to expand across the nation in coming years.
Choi was far from the only entrepreneur to be inspired by the success of the self-service, pay-by-weight concept. Indeed, numerous stores sharing a similar idea have sprung up across the country, something Choi says speaks to the many advantages of the concept in today’s marketplace. “I think with the introduction of frozen yogurt this time around, I think people are making better decisions when it comes to eating and snacking,” he says.
Another key advantage to the model is how much customization it gives customers. Choi says giving customers as many options as possible is a clear driver in the retail world now, and 16 Handles and other frozen yogurt concepts like it offer customers the option to choose exactly what they want and how much they want to pay for it. “The self-serve model really promotes each individual’s choice,” Choi says. “Having those options under one roof really allows this model to serve the majority of the people.”
When 16 Handles first opened its doors five years ago, Choi says, there were nine direct competitors in the neighborhood, but today 16 Handles and one other competitor remain. Choi says that’s because 16 Handles does a lot to distinguish itself in the marketplace, starting with the quality and variety of its products. Where other competitors were content with offering either vanilla or chocolate, 16 Handles offers fat-free flavors ranging from New York cheesecake to non-dairy blood orange sorbetto to a low-fat premium salted caramel. The company’s frozen yogurt offerings range in no-sugar-added, seasonal and premium low-fat varieties as well as non-dairy sorbets.
Choi says 16 Handles also offers far more than its competitors when it comes to toppings. Along with the usual assortment of fruit, nuts and chocolate chips, 16 Handles also allows customers to add unique options such as yogurt-covered pretzels, granola and white chocolate sauce. “One of the things that differentiates us is that we were always trying new things,” Choi says, adding that the company hired a corporate chef to help it develop new products including pastries and other novelties.
But there’s more to 16 Handles’ success than its menu, and Choi says the atmosphere it creates in its stores goes a long way toward bringing customers back. The message of “flaunt your flavor” creates a casual ambiance in its stores, with lounge seating, energetic music and employees having the freedom to change up their uniforms with their own hats. “It should be a fun place, so once the employees feel that, then the customers experience that, as well,” Choi says. “There’s a reason that draws them back in, and I think it’s that lifestyle aspect.”
Another aspect of 16 Handles that sets it apart is corporate responsibility, which Choi says is evident in its dedication to sustainability. Not only does 16 Handles use recyclable and compostable packaging and spoons, but it also has helped plant more than 50,000 trees with Trees For the Future.
Choi says the self-service frozen yogurt world is headed for a major shakeup in the next 18 months, as competitors who found it wasn’t as easy to succeed as they thought it would be consolidate or leave the market altogether. He adds that for a company to succeed through this shakeup, it will have to focus on engaging customers and continually innovating.
The company looks forward to continued steady growth throughout the Northeast and eventually elsewhere in the United States, and Choi says the company plans to expand in other ways, as well. 16 Handles plans to roll out new product platforms in the coming months outside of the frozen yogurt space to provide customers with even more choices. “We don’t want to be pigeonholed as just another frozen yogurt shop,” he says.