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Q&A with David Begin: Frozen yogurt business heats up

April 8, 2011
photo - David Begin, co-owner of iTopIt. "It's actually a fun business," he says of the self-serve frozen yogurt business. Photo by BILL RADFORD, THE GAZETTE
David Begin, co-owner of iTopIt. "It's actually a fun business," he says of the self-serve frozen yogurt business. Photo by BILL RADFORD, THE GAZETTE 

Frozen yogurt has become a hot business since Pinkberry — with its tart “Swirly Goodness" — opened its first shop in Los Angeles in 2005.

With Pinkberry and South Korea-based Red Mango leading the way, a frozen-yogurt craze spread through Southern California and beyond. That craze has given birth to self-serve chains such as Yogurtland and Menchie’s that offer a more economical, do-it-yourself frozen-yogurt experience where customers pick from a variety of flavors and toppings.

In Colorado Springs, David and Brenda Begin, along with a Dallas-based partner, have launched iTopIt, with one location that opened in February at 1610 E. Cheyenne Mountain Blvd. and another scheduled to open around July 1 at 2912 N. Powers Blvd. on the city’s east side.

The shop offers two dozen yogurt combinations and more than 70 toppings, with customers paying by the ounce.

Frozen yogurt was also a craze in the 1980s. (TCBY opened its first shop in 1981.) David Begin believes it’s the self-serve aspect that’s helping drive the resurgence today.

Begin is also the majority owner/managing partner of White Water Rapid Wash, an express carwash with two locations in the Springs.

Begin, 49, and his wife moved from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to Colorado Springs a decade ago.

Hot air balloonists, they fell in love with the area while attending the annual Colorado Balloon Classic in Colorado Springs several times, he said.

Question: What made you want to tap into the self-serve frozen-yogurt craze?

Answer: It’s a concept that’s up and coming here in the U.S. It’s been in major markets for probably the last three years, so we’re starting to see it come into other markets like this.
It’s actually a fun business. It makes people feel good about coming; everybody gets to make their own dessert.

Q: Had you been looking for another business or did you end up at a frozen-yogurt shop somewhere and decide you wanted to do this?

A: My partner in Dallas said, “Hey, this whole concept of self-serve frozen yogurt is up and coming, do you have anything in Colorado Springs?” I said no, so he says, “Why don’t we think about doing something?”

“So that’s how we got started with it. The idea of creating businesses is fun for me. The running it part is kind of the work aspect.

Q: Pinkberry is opening its first Colorado Springs location soon, on the north end of town, and there’s a self-serve frozen-yogurt shop called Lulu’s Frozen Yogurt that will be opening on the north side as well.(A mid- to late-May opening is planned.) YoYogurt, another self-serve place, opened last month on the east side (5885 Stetson Hills Blvd.). So are you going to be in the middle of frozen-yogurt wars?

A: We will. But there’s plenty of opportunity, I think, for people to come into the market.
In Denver right now they’re opening yogurt shops every week. I think if you do a good job, you have a good location, you provide the customer with a good product, you’ll be fine.
Pinkberry, their market’s a bit different. They tend to be a bit more for the adult market, so their flavors are probably more tart, and they don’t have the self-service component.

Q: Speaking of locations, how did you decide on the current location and the upcoming Powers location?

A: The thing we look for is whether there is a lot of traffic around it. Being able to take advantage of what goes on here (close to Tinseltown, the Colorado Springs World Arena and a Target store), that was one reason we liked this particular area. It seemed to be a sort of central area where people in Colorado Springs come.
Most of these kinds of stores are probably between 900 and 1,200 square feet. We decided to make ours larger. People want a place to sit down. In Colorado, it gets cold in winter and people don’t want to sit outside to have their yogurt, so we went with 1,500 square feet in both of our locations.

Q: You mentioned cold winters. Did you have any concerns about being in a relatively cold-weather state, compared with, say, California, where the frozen-yogurt craze has really taken off?

A: Not really. The appetite for frozen desserts, it’s pretty much year-round. We’ll probably do better in the summertime than in the winter.  But we opened up in the middle of February, which everybody thought we were kind of crazy (to do), and we’ve done very, very well. It’s been great.

Q: You’re also launching a business at a time when the economy remains fragile. Does that worry you?

A: It doesn’t. It seems like people will still go ahead and treat themselves, people will still buy themselves a nice coffee or a frozen dessert once a week. I think it’s the larger purchases where people get concerned about it.

Q: Did you consider hooking up with an up-and-coming franchise instead of striking out on your own?

A: We looked at that, but we were pretty disappointed with what the franchises had come up with as far as systems and operating manuals.
There really wasn’t anything that we thought was useful to us.

Q: How did you go about deciding what flavors and toppings to offer?

A: We basically went around to different yogurt stores and figured out what we liked and didn’t like. We’ll be changing out flavors every week or two. We try to get seasonal flavors, like pumpkin in the fall, peppermint in the winter.

Q: With self-serve, is customers creating messes a concern?

A: Well, it happens. We basically keep somebody out in front to keep the drip trays wiped down and everything. It’s not terribly messy. Sometimes kids will get carried away with it.
One thing we did is use sort of an oversized cup. What we see with small cups is people tend to overfill them and then it ends up all over the floor.

With this kind of business, you need to keep it clean. If it’s not, people are going to shy away from it.

Questions and answers were edited
for brevity and clarity.

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