Amit Kleinberger is the 33-year-old CEO of Menchie’s frozen yogurt, a rapidly growing chain that recently celebrated its 300th franchise opening, in Houston. With a veritable outbreak of rival frozen yogurt chains across America and beyond--recent headlines have warned of yogurt's "implacable rise" upon a new "lactic battleground"--Kleinberger has cast his lot in a tart and frigid game of thrones. Fast Company caught up with Kleinberger to learn about the fastest growing segment of the frozen desserts category, how yogurt's physical properties enable more innovation that ice cream, and why would-be business leaders should brush up their Ping-Pong game.
FAST COMPANY: What is Menchie’s?
AMIT KLEINBERGER: We started the franchise in 2008, and in five years, we’ve grown the organization into over 300 units. We just celebrated our 300th opening, and we’re now almost to 310 units. We have stores in about 40 states plus around the world: Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Jordan. Our mission statement is: We make you smile. When you walk into one of our stores, I believe we deliver three things: a lot of fun, the best-in-class product, and world-class service. By doing so and delivering those three flawlessly, we were able to capture an audience of millions around the world and propel our brand to where it is today.
Must be a tough business, competing with the likes of Tasti D-lite and Pinkberry.
My view of competition is that you need it. You can’t be prom king or queen if you’re not going to high school; there’s no number one without number two. It’s what keeps everyone on their toes, innovating and moving forward. But I don’t waste my time seeing what they do and don’t do. There are some wonderful brands in the frozen dessert category. We lift the awareness of frozen desserts as a whole, as a common goal and passion.
How did you fall in love with frozen desserts?
It’s something we’re all close to. We love sweets. I love sweets. I eat a meal only for the excuse to have the dessert. It’s a wonderful category. Look at what’s going on. It’s growing exponentially, a 28-billion-dollar industry in America. Last year, within the frozen dessert category, frozen yogurt had the highest growth in market share, against ice cream and smoothies and everything. It’s booming. You and I, when we were kids, we went to the ice cream store. Today, memories are being created by going with parents to the self-serve yogurt stores. I predict most ice cream stores will not be able to sustain themselves. Frozen yogurt is a more health-conscientious product, it’s consumed in a more experiential environment, and it has more fun and innovative aspects.
What’s fun and innovative about frozen yogurt?
It has to do with the technology of how you produce yogurt today. It’s consumed in a different state than ice cream. Frozen yogurt is slightly more liquidy; by virtue of that, you have the ability to do a few more fun things with it. You can top it with toppings far easier and in a better way than ice cream, because the product is in a different state from a physics standpoint. We’re able to provide fresh fruits that are just top notch, and gummy bears and M&M’s. It’s just a lot of fun, and it’s something you can’t achieve in an ice cream environment. You’re able to formulate new flavors with a swift rhythm and speed, faster than ice cream. And there’s the whole self-serve model: with ice cream, you cannot self serve. Put all that together, and it’s a lethal combination.
Do you even eat ice cream anymore, or do you just not bother?
I must say that I probably only eat it if there’s no access to frozen yogurt.
When you bump into an ice cream company CEO, is it tense?
Not at all. They control a different segment. They own what I call the away-from-home, non-immediate consumption segment. We control the away-from-home, immediate segment. The supermarkets will continue to offer ice cream in buckets to take home. I wish them all the best with that.
How did you have the confidence to enter this crowded space?
People don’t buy what you sell. They buy what you do. It’s not about the yogurt. It’s about the experience. What sets us apart from the rest of the market is our ability to create an experience that really makes you smile: our design, our colors, our character. We have a mobile game called Smile World. You can sample as much as you want. You can sample your heart away. We don’t limit you. You can sit down and relax on one of our patios, or play on our chalkboards. Our chalkboards are highly popular.
Your PR person says you are an avid Ping-Pong player and even placed fourth in the company barbecue last year.
One thing I love about Ping-Pong is that it’s one of those games that happens in seconds. It reminds me of business, because business is so agile and so dynamic. You have to change and adapt to changing and demanding market conditions. Another thing I love about Ping-Pong is the need for precision and accuracy. One of my favorite sayings is that if you take care of the little details, the bigger picture will take care of itself. In Ping-Pong, if you miss by a quarter of an inch, the ball is out. When you play Ping-Pong, and you know that you’re aiming to hit a certain spot, if you hit that exact spot, you win the play. It’s that simple. It’s the same in business: If you know this is what you want to execute and do it precisely, you will absolutely prevail.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
[Image: Flickr user madmarv]