Profiles of Success
How Pinkberry Took Los Angeles by Storm
Shelly Hwang & Young Lee's venture Into greatness
The story of Pinkberry began on the heels of a failure — actually three different failed ventures. Shelly Hwang had lost money on two franchise investments and then tried to open a tea house in West Hollywood. She hired architect Young Lee to redesign the space, which had been a tattoo parlor, but she could not get a liquor license or a permit for a patio, so the plans for a tea house were scrapped.
Hwang and Lee, who at some point went from being business partners to romantic ones as well, decided to start a venture that offered a simple selection of fat-free yogurt — initially, the only flavors were plain and green tea — with variety of fruit and dry toppings to choose from. The setting Lee designed was as minimalist as the menu: lots of glass, modern Philippe Starck chairs and LeKlint lamps. Lee claims the dessert was inspired by the soft serve gelato he enjoyed in Europe several years earlier.
Despite a grand opening during the rainy cold winter of 2004–2005 — not an auspicious beginning for a frozen dessert shop in a difficult location — people loved the stuff, and the store turned a profit in four months. Shortly after the first store opened, people were lining up and braving gridlock and parking tickets in the congested residential neighborhoods adjacent to the shop. Even celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Hudson and Paris Hilton became fans.
A second store was opened by the end of 2006, and expansion has been nonstop since then. In late 2007, Maveron, an investment fund founded by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, invested $27.5 million in the franchise, which allowed for a nationwide expansion. There are now 75 stores concentrated in Southern California and New York, but also scattered across the U.S., with a few in places like Dubai and Kuwait.
Editors, bloggers and branding consultants say that the trendy store design makes Pinkberry an experience rather than just a dessert product, and the long lines give it that feeling of exclusivity that consumers value despite the inconvenience.
There was controversy about whether the swirly goodness™ Pinkberry sells was indeed yogurt. Heather Wilson, Pinkberry spokesperson, told NPR it is made of yogurt, milk, flavoring and some sugar. “It’s a frozen dessert with yogurt in it,” she said.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture requires that frozen yogurt be manufactured in a "state-licensed and state-inspected facility,” and Pinkberry was initially mixing its product in the retail stores, something they say has been rectified in order to satisfy this requirement.
In 2008, Pinkberry’s yogurt was certified by the National Yogurt Association as meeting the standards to carry their “Live & Active Cultures” seal. And there have been a few more seasonal flavors added to the menu, such as pomegranate and, sometimes, coffee, as well as fruit parfaits and smoothies.
The current executive team and board of directors are comprised of restaurant, food industry and consumer goods executives, although CEO Ron Graves, formerly of Maveron, has a military as well as business background.
Hyekyung “Shelly” Hwang, Pinkberry’s chief product officer, was born in South Korea, where her father owned a factory. She came to the U.S. in 1992 to go to USC. Young Lee, now chief creative officer, reportedly worked as a bouncer before he became an architect. The pair married, but filed for divorce in early 2010. The assets to be divided — among many luxury items — include 14 million shares of company stock.
Suzanne Ridgway is a is freelance writer and regular columnist for Working World magazine. She also writes grant proposals for nonprofit organizations.