Most people did not consider 2009 an ideal time to start any kind of small business — the credit markets had more or less squeezed shut, a staggering number of Americans found themselves on the unemployment rolls and the economy seemed like it might be on the brink of ruin.
But when entrepreneur Derek Cha, his wife, Annah Kim, and their two children moved to Richmond in 2009, the problem they found as most immediately pressing was the complete and utter lack of decent frozen yogurt options on offer. Having relocated from the West Coast’s fro-yo rich environment, the Richmond frozen yogurt scene left a lot to be desired.
And that was a problem they could fix.
And so in 2009, sweetFrog opened its first location in Short Pump, Va. — and the world met Scoop and Cookie, their frog mascots.
Flash forward eight years, and sweetFrog has been hopping along pretty busily — there are now 350 sweetFrog locations spread across the U.S. with international locations in the Dominican Republic, U.K. and Egypt. It is no longer quite a mom-and-pop operation anymore — in 2015 Cha sold a controlling interest in the company to Richmond-based Boxwood Capital Partners.
Cha still owns 12 franchises and retains 15 percent of the company, but he is not a company officer or board member.
So how did the company manage to innovate something as simple as frozen yogurt?
Self-Service And Customer Choice
The frozen treat experience in the pre-sweetFrog world was something of a stereotyped experience — a few classic flavors (chocolate, strawberry and vanilla were the reigning champs), a handful of classic toppings (sprinkles abound) and a choice between a cup or a cone.
sweetFrog decided that perhaps consumers needed more choice, so it added creamy mint, mountain blackberry, peanut butter, New York cheesecake, almond praline, toasted marshmallow, raspberry pomegranate tart, salted caramel corn — we could go on for a few more pages, but that wouldn’t let us illustrate the point about the toppings list, which is equally decked out. Everyone has sprinkles, but sweetFrog understands that pink sprinkles and green sprinkles taste better and should be offered as a separate option, along with every imaginable fruit, candy, chocolate configuration and nut known to mankind.
The typical sweetFrog location is about 1,500 square feet, with only two or three employees behind the counter to dish out the frozen yogurt (and, in latter days, ice cream and gelato). Most of the construction work is done by the customers themselves — the almost alarmingly complete toppings bar is self-service meaning customers can, and do, make almost any imaginable combination happen.
But according to sweetFrog, these days, when many, many other chains have imitated its self-service topping tricks, part of its magic isn’t in what they sell, but the environment it sells it in.
The sweetFrog Experience
When aforementioned mascots Scoop and Cookie show up in stores, noted Boxwoods managing partner (and sweetFrog’s leader) Patrick Galleher noted, they have the status of becoming something of a social media event.
And much of what sweetFrog does uniquely well is creating an ongoing relationship with their customers beyond the sort of community business class go-tos like fundraisers (though sweetFrog is behind plenty of those).
But then there are the uniquely, well, froggy touches.
For those dedicated enough to try to win free fro-yo for a year, there is a monthly Name the Swirl competition, where sweetFrog puts out its swirled flavor of the month — and customers get to try to come up with the official name. The August flavor, by the way, is strawberry lemonade and cotton candy yogurt mixed with jolly ranchers and whipped cream — so the challenge is real.
The chain is also committed, according to Chief Marketing Officer Matt Smith, to being an educational partner to the community. In mid-April chains nationwide celebrated the so-call pink moon with viewing parties and free pink frozen yogurt samples.
“Pink moon viewing parties are part of the Leap Forward educational programs we offer nationwide,” said Smith. “In partnerships with local schools, these pink moon viewing parties will show kids the value and excitement of outdoors and learning more about their world.”
It helps, of course, that it also gets kids excited about enjoying their natural world with frozen yogurt.
So while it may be the case that everyone screams for ice cream — give frozen yogurt a chance. Over the past decade, it might just have been the most innovative dessert.