16 Handles has been a NYC staple since 2008 and has managed to stay in business even as froyo stores have come and gone and trends have changed. We talked to founder and CEO Solomon Choi about how he got started, how 16 Handles stays innovative, and what the future holds for his company.
Downtown: How has 16 Handles managed to outlast many of the stores that opened as the froyo trend was taking off?
Solomon Choi: Our focus has been around quality products (best tasting, chef-created, curated ingredients), self-expression (Flaunt Your Flavor!), and fun (environment, music, social voice). We also offer tasty options for all dietary needs (non-fat/low fat, no sugar added, non-dairy, tart). These factors helped us create a lifestyle brand in NYC rather than just another froyo shop. We were recognized as the first self serve froyo shop in NYC, and it didn’t hurt that what started with 10 direct frozen dessert competitors in a three block radius from our East Village store is now just one other ice cream shop.
Downtown: Why were you the person to create 16 Handles?
SC: Growing up I always wanted to create my own brand. I studied marketing in college and really enjoyed consumer behavior and branding courses. My background was in hospitality and restaurant management. While living in LA, I was part of a restaurant group, and one of the brands we franchised was a gelato concept from Texas. I was in charge of franchise sales and noticed that a lot of prospects were more interested in frozen yogurt due to Pinkberry’s rising popularity. In doing research, I quickly realized that consumers were treating tart frozen yogurt as a healthier dessert/snack option and even as a post-workout refreshment– something they never did with ice cream. A family friend still operates the very first self serve frozen yogurt shop that he bought in 1990. I apprenticed at his store for a few months to learn the business and told him that I was going to create my own franchise brand using the self serve model. My family provided the seed funding for me to open one location, and I decided on NYC because I wanted to build a global brand thus went to the most global and brand prominent city in the world.
Downtown: Can you even eat your own product on the Keto diet?!
SC: Sparingly. I started the Keto diet in December so I had to eliminate sugar/carbs almost entirely which has made my snacking options limited. That said, I taste and sign off on all flavors that make it to the handles. Our culinary team is actually working on keto friendly flavors so don’t be surprised if we’re the first brand with those offerings. Flavor innovation is extremely important for us, and our customers look to us to lead the way in soft serve like we’re doing now with our vegan cashew milk based flavors.
Downtown: What did you learn about yourself by starting this company?
SC: I learned that sticking with my gut is often times the best thing to do as the founder and leader of the organization. While I often make mistakes, I’ve found that overall the brand has been carried by my vision and that can’t be bought or taught. I also learned that it’s paramount to get talented people around you who are excited about the vision. I used to think it was about hiring the smartest or most experienced but I’ve seen over the last decade that those aren’t enough without the right attitude and heart. Lastly, I’ve come to realize that I’m in love with the process of building a brand moreso than managing one. An entrepreneur lives for the love of creating.
Downtown: How fun is R&D?
SC: R&D allows me to tap into my innermost child and be creative. Each year I personally visit our creamery in Michigan and work with the culinary team to develop new flavors for the following year. It’s two to three days of non-stop soft serve tasting. While that may sound like a dream job, it’s actually quite taxing on your body and taste buds. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it, and I have enough data points now to know with a high degree of certainty which flavors will work better than others. This past year I was able to bring along Haerin Ma, our product manager. Haerin is classically trained in pastry and dessert so it was great to get her involved and contribute with her expertise.
Downtown: How do you keep things interesting?
SC: We love to look at trends both in our space as well as outside to try to understand our customers and their behavior. I would say that it’s this obsession that separates us from our competitors. This business was built for the guest and their experience so it keeps myself and the team on our toes and looking at the everchanging world that we live in, especially because of technology. We’ve been at the forefront of utilizing digital and technological tools to be where our customers communicate and congregate. In addition to food and franchise conventions and shows, I participate in digital retail and technology summits to stay on top of the latest trends and developments. I then bring back my learnings and present it to our team to see how we can apply those insights into our business. The vibe is more of a tech startup than a traditional foodservice franchise. We also stay very lean so that we’re working closely on all projects.
Downtown: How do partnerships come about?
SC: Some of the partnerships come inbound and others from outbound communications. As NYC’s largest frozen dessert brand, we have leverage in reaching an audience that other brands or advertisers want to reach. We do a fantastic job in reaching our audience both in store and on our social channels. When we look for a partner, we make sure that the values and perception of the brand work well with ours so that it doesn’t send a weird message to all of our guests. Our latest partnership with Cookie Do NYC was a no brainer because we have a similar vibe and service the same customers with our dessert offerings. It’s great to work with best in class brands to amplify our engagement.
Downtown: What is the future for 16 Handles?
SC: 2019 is about re-committing to lifestyle values. The health and diet trends of today are very different than in 2008. We started this year by offering more plant-based, non-dairy offerings as this has been something that our guests have been asking for. I see our soft serve wall in the near future with monikers like “keto, paleo, vegan, gluten-free” among others that are more relevant now as to how people choose to eat and snack. We exist so that we can continue to create moments of happiness by sharing the world’s best tasting desserts and snacks centered around quality, self-expression, and fun.