16 Handles’ Solomon Choi is One to Watch

Article by Kevin Young

The Korea Society graciously hosted an insightful talk with Solomon Choi, a Californian native Korean-American, who became the successful CEO of 16 Handles, a trendy frozen yogurt hot spot among female adolescents.

Choi gifted audience members with two of his newest sweet yogurt flavors, cookies and mango. This vast froyo franchise garnered its name after Choi’s belief in the power of numbers and observation that each yogurt machine has two handles. He choose 16 as the model because a sweet 16 is something treasured by many females. 16 Handles launched in 2008 operates in 42 locations across the east coast and will be expanding into the lucrative Middle Eastern market with 150 planned store openings. Solomon having earned a prestigious marketing degree from the University of Southern California, shared his personal experiences on how he became successful and sheded light on how marketing effectively is key for any budding business.

From the gecko, Solomon talked about his upbringing being raised by traditional immigrant parents. Choi’s parents initially wanted him to pursue a career in law or medical science yet Choi states he always had an interest in marketing due to the fact that he is a consumer himself. “I love being sold and I really respect lifestyle brands. A lifestyle brand is the promise or representational of the brand from inside you. It’s not necessarily how the brand product performs but how it makes me feel,” said Choi. He elaborated on how these lifestyle brands are long lasting and always innovative, crediting Apple as a  pioneer lifestyle brand.

After graduating in 2002, he was offered a full time job at a high-end marketing advertising agency yet turned it down to travel aboard visiting five countries throughout Asia because of his affinity to explore the world.  He cites experiencing the world cup in both South Korea and Japan as an unforgettable experience. Yet at the same time he knew he had to work too, and the only company he claims that would let him travel for two months was Enterprise Rent a Car. He admired how this company treasured the same hospitality values as him, since they were instilled in him growing up from his parents’ Japanese franchised restaurant, Todi an all you can eat Japanese sushi buffet. From working under Enterprise, Choi learned the invaluable philosophy, “Take care of your customer, take care of your people, then profits will follow.”

Moving on from Enterprise, Choi was asked by his father to run a newly opened up Todi restaurant in San Diego and obliged with pride to finally practice all of his management and sales techniques that he accumulated over the years. Following the philosophy he learned at Enterprise, he utilized these sales, service, and new marketing tactics to flourish the restaurant. “I implemented this marketing tactic called the super seafood menu. I realized that mother’s day was the busiest day and I called all my competitors to find out what they were doing for mother’s day.   I realized what they had was less than what Todi offers regularly,” said Choi. “I then said lets soup up the menu and ask for a higher price but compensate with a better experience for mom since it’s her day. I increased the price by $7 per person and added a few more items onto the menu and moms would receive a glass of champagne and a flower.” Choi was ecstatic at the groundbreaking results and then corporate office soon took his idea and implemented it to other locations.  What Solomon did next was surprising. He went on to acquire a gelato franchise.

After working for a Gelato franchise, Solomon learned about frozen yogurt after being beat by Pinkberry. He learned that females loved to be associated with frozen yogurt opposed to gelatos. “I was amazed by how successful frozen yogurt could become. I had a friend whose family owned the very first self-serve frozen yogurt shop in Orange County California and begged him to let me work even if for free to learn about that business.” After he worked there for three months he learned the whole system.

The idea of opening a yogurt shop in New York came up after a family gathering with relatives from the East Coast. Solomon was intrigued by this idea and flew out to search for ideal locations. Initially his relatives wanted him to set up shop in New Jersey, where he would have no competitors yet after contemplating, he decided he wanted to open up a franchise with the world watching and for that reason choose New York City. “I wanted the largest stage possible. I had one shot,” said Choi. “I wanted to go all in. New York is the capital of brands for food, retail, and media.”

“I hated New York when I first moved out here. But I’m glad I did because it fueled me to work so much harder. When I came out here and talked to people they would ask what business I was opening and when I told them frozen yogurt they always compared it to Pinkberry. I wanted to know when can I own the word, frozen yogurt?”

At the very least in regards to choosing the original location of East Village he credits his broker for finding the location. Choi was asked “who are you looking for,” and then with that question a light bulb ignited in his head where he realized that he had a primary consumer base. “I realized not everyone is my customer. Everyone can be a customer of 16 Handles but not everyone is my customer. If I went in with that theory I should have opened up anywhere. While I thought about it my target customer was a she and I realized that the primarily target is the 18-34 year old female.” Hence the reason he opened up near the NYU freshman dorms because he believed that if he could win these students over they would become loyal customers for four years. It was a dangerous move because within a four block radius there were nine frozen desert shops but Choi wasn’t afraid of a challenge and he wanted to be in proximity of his customers.

“The first location my broker reluctantly showed me because he didn’t want me to be in the East Village surrounded by all these competitors.  The location was on 2nd ave between 9th and 10th street. It was perfect. I later sold my car and packed my bags from LA to completely relocate to New York and got the store open on July 2008,” said Choi. “I’ll never forget that day. It was a Thursday afternoon after the health inspection at 3pm. We opened up immediately and two days later on the first Saturday we had a line out the door. I was like woah what happened because this was before NYU kids came back from summer break. That’s how quickly word of mouth spreads. I was surprised because I didn’t do that much advertising.”

Solomon’s unexpected rapid success garner him attention from customers out of Manhattan, from other boroughs, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He claims it was “hell” but rewarding at the same time to work every summer helping to please all of his new customers. His success wouldn’t end there. Two months after already being open, the first franchisee expressed interest in 16 handles.  After meeting Solomon, the franchisee was shocked at how young Solomon was, sporting spiky hair, wearing a v-neck t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. “I approached him and asked if he was Bruce the guy that emailed me. He replied that he was here to see Solomon. I told him that was me and then his jaw just dropped as he asked me uhh is this your store?,” said Choi. “There was a long pause from Bruce, and he said I don’t mean to be rude but I was expecting a middle aged Jewish guy not someone like yourself. He was just in shock. He gave me that confirmation that when I was ready to franchise he would be my first franchisee. Fast forward later he now has 4 shops uptown.”

Solomon then went on to speak about what made his brand standout. “We had differentiators. One was we were the first to do self-serve. The second was to have an eco-friendly stance with friendly packaging. We started by using compostable cups and wooden spoons. These environmental conscious ideas I actually picked up from my time in California,” said Choi. “I strive to have my brand represent quality, individuality, and fun. Having these ideals as fundamental pillars that are instilled in everyone on my team from the top to the bottom is what makes 16 Handles Successful. It’s really important that the brand stands for something.”

Choi credits the tagline message “flaunt your flavor” as 16 Handle’s message because it’s progressive and presents 16 Handles as a lifestyle brand. Having strategic partnerships was another crucial marketing tactic to promote 16 Handles, which launched their new smoothie products. 16 Handles has a staple sponsorship with soul cycling. Cult-like gym-goers actively treat themselves to froyo as a post workout delight.

 

Choi a young established entrepreneur hopes that his life story will be inspiring to future business owners or anyone to pursue a far-reached dream. Choi believes as long as you work hard and learn as you grow older, you can become successful.

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