Escalating the Cold War

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:10

    On A RECENT afternoon, one of the East Village’s newest frozen yogurt joints filled up with New York University students, parents and local kids all tightly clutching their cups, deciding among the 16 choices of frozen yogurt and sorbet at their disposal.

    As they swarmed around him, the store’s owner, Solomon Choi, talked about the philosophy of his store, 16 Handles. “I really want 16 Handles to be more then just another yogurt shop,” the 28-year-old entrepreneur said. “I wanted to build a brand, which is why I came to New York.” He paused and excused himself to get up and help a man and his son. A moment later he sat back down and explained the two customers came in a few days ago asking if the yogurt had any contact with tree nuts. Choi admitted he didn’t know, so he called the supplier and found out that they were tree-nut free—the kid could have his dessert.

    “It must be so hard to be a kid with those allergies,” he said. “When you’re young, you really want ice cream.” Over the past two years, Manhattan alone has become home to dozens of new frozen yogurt shops.There are 14 Pinkberrys, six Red Mangos, standalone stores like Sace in the East Village and the bodegabased Yolato empire.

    According to the market-research firm Mintel, frozen yogurt sales in New York

    16 Handles in the East Village offers self-serve fro-yo options.

    City will rise 12 percent from $177 million to $200 million in the next four years.

    For anybody who remembers the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Yogurt and TCBY invasion of the 1990s, it’s hard to believe that all of these outposts will survive. In all likelihood, they won’t. The stores that do make it, though, will do so because of the fanatical devotion that frozen desserts inspire in (seemingly) otherwise sane New Yorkers. “I do not like Pinkberry,” declares Claudia Quinones, as she chows down a cup of yogurt at 16 Handles. “It leaves a weird after taste.”

    Sitting next to her, her friend Crystal Robles disagrees, “Pinkberry is my favorite, but 16 Handles’ tart flavor tastes the same and it’s cheaper.”

    “But the selection here is amazing,” replies Quinones. “I guess I would come here over going to Pinkberry if it was closer,” Robles finally concedes.

    Location, of course, is everything. For Choi, moving into a frozen yogurt saturated neighborhood where his store competes directly with Pinkberry, Sace, Tasti D-Lite and Red Mango—all within a one-block radius— shows moxie. But with only one shop thus far, competition might favor the chains.

    “The first and foremost thing we like to do is embrace that our product is superior to other products out there,” says Red Mango founder Daniel Kim. “Our number one criteria is location, we don’t immediately look at who’s there, we look at the customers.

    “We have a couple locations that are close to our competitors,” he adds. “But we have taken a much more mainstream approach, you don’t see lots of colors and plastic furniture. It’s more of a lounge.”

    Indeed, one way each store makes its mark is by establishing an identity, beginning with its interior. Pinkberry has an Asian pop-culture theme, which includes plastic furniture and swirled patterns, which has won fans like Jerry Seinfeld and Paris Hilton. Red Mango goes more for a homey atmosphere—“a place people can relax in,” says Kim—interiors at old timer Tasti D-Lite vary at each location, but generally fall between hospital chic and almost welcoming, Williamsburg’s /eks/ feels like a futuristic cafe full of hipster ice cream from the great beyond and 16 Handles remains self-serve, with a small staff and earthtoned decorations.

    If this all sounds a bit calculated for frozen yogurt, you’ll be pleased to know that this trend has come our way from—of course—Los Angeles.

    New Yorkers were late bloomers in the frozen yogurt craze, which popped up a little over a year ago when Pinkberry opened up in Manhattan. The first Red Mango touched down last December, and now 16 Handles is all ready scouting out other locations.

    “I had a strong image from the get go,” said Choi. “It’s been very rewarding.”