Shop Talk: Yogurt explosion rocks Palo Alto
NO MELTDOWN IN SIGHT ... Palo Alto loves yogurt — but not necessarily the store-bought variety in little round containers. Palo Altans seem to go for the more expensive, frozen variety that is swirling around town in small, upscale, crowded shops in what some have called the "yogurt war."
Red Mango, 429 University Ave., opened just two months ago. Although the Red Mango brand is popular in Southern California with more than a dozen shops, local owner Yul Kwon is surprised that his first store in the Bay Area already has a booming business. "Palo Alto seems to have a large appetite for frozen yogurt," Kwon said. He's already planning another Red Mango for San Carlos and is hoping to have one soon in San Jose's Santana Row.
A former Google employee, Kwon just finalized an agreement with his former company in which Google will begin serving Red Mango frozen yogurt in several of its cafes in Mountain View in the next few weeks. Kwon, who's had quite a run in the last few years, takes the Google coup in stride. He was the $1 million winner in 2006 of the CBS-TV show, "Survivor," and was later named one of People magazine's sexiest men of 2006. Earlier this year, he flirted briefly with a possible run for Tom Lantos' Congressional seat. And he had a helping hand in drafting sections for the Homeland Security Bill, when he worked as a legislative aide to Senator Joseph Lieberman. But Kwon, despite his fame and success, is surprisingly down-to-earth, and he is all about yogurt these days, working hard to get Red Mango shops throughout Northern California.
The frozen-yogurt trend in Palo Alto got a jumpstart last year, when Palo Altans Jessica Gilmartin and Patty Roj formed a partnership and opened Fraiche Yogurt at 644 Emerson St. The appeal was the quality of their product — they pasteurized their own yogurt and made it on-site, in the back of the store. Word spread quickly. Customers often are waiting in lines that spill out onto the sidewalk. Business became so prosperous that the two are about to open their second shop in San Mateo. "We had so many customers who traveled down here from Burlingame and San Mateo. There was a need and a great opportunity, so we took it. Opening a second Fraiche was the right thing to do," Gilmartin said.
The immediate success of Fraiche was closely watched by others. "We see people in here with clipboards and cameras. They take notes," Gilmartin said. "We know what they're doing, but, hey, imitation is a compliment, right?"
The two friends don't scare easily. They are not fazed by similar yogurt shops popping up in the area. "We're different. We make everything from scratch. We do our own pasteurizing. We're the first and only that we know of that has a pasteurizer's license," Gilmartin said.
California Avenue is also getting into the yogurt act. Although the shopping area is heavy on restaurants and hair-and-nail salons, there is a scarcity of ice-cream parlors or dessert shops. Two Palo Alto-area moms noted the dearth and sprang into action. Alexis Beckman and Mary Randolph-Hundt founded Culture, an organic, frozen-yogurt shop at 340 California Ave. that is scheduled to open on Labor Day. The pair's main goal is to be eco-friendly. "We are both really dedicated to a local, sustainable effort," Beckman said. Their yogurt store will reflect that. "Our floors will be made of cork, and our counters will be made from recycled glass."
It was pure chance that the two women got together. "We were at the big slide in Johnson Park, at the corner of Waverley Street and Hawthorne Avenue in north Palo Alto. We both have 3-year-old little boys, and they were playing together, so we started talking. Mary has a culinary background, and I'm the entrepreneur. We discovered we were both crazy about organic food," Beckman said. Their 1,300-square-foot store will have both indoor and outdoor seating for about 30 people.
Even more frozen yogurt shops are eyeing the Palo Alto area. Pinkberry is a 3-year-old sensation in Southern California. "Palo Alto is definitely on our radar but we are not prepared to make an official announcement yet," Pinkberry spokesperson Heather Wilson said. And Yogurberry, another Los Angeles-based frozen-yogurt chain, is making its way up the Peninsula. It will open stores in both San Jose and Mountain View. One more shop, Frozen Yogurt Bar, is planning an autumn opening on Main Street in Los Altos.
Heard a rumor about your favorite store or business moving out, or in, down the block or across town? Daryl Savage will check it out. She can be e-mailed at email@example.com.