For most people, 2009 was not a banner year to commemorate. Like most of the world, the United States was in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and our GDP was stuck in a rut of nearly -3%. It was hardly the climate to be planning the launch of a new startup. But that’s exactly what Derek Cha and his wife Annah Kim were preparing to do.
Rather than succumb to the negativity that was permeating every aspect of our culture, Derek had a vision of launching a new business that would provide jobs, hope and source of optimism. What was that vision? It was that of a self-serve frozen yogurt shop. While it might sound like a fun “hobby,” it’s not one that seems likely to survive the turbulence of the economic times, let alone grow to a multimillion dollar company.
Derek was confident that God had given him the vision and relied upon his faith and support of family and friends and launched his first store in Richmond, Virginia in 2009. He wanted to make sure that God was given glory in his endeavor and named his company sweetFrog (Frog is an acronym for Fully Rely on God). He was also aware of the dire climate of the economy and wanted to provide a cheerful experience the moment you walked in the door of a sweetFrog store. The shop decor is ultra-bright with the sweetFrog mascots “Scoop” and “Cookie” displayed playfully throughout the store. They sell t-shirts, hats and other logo merchandise in the same bright colors, which also serves to solidify their brand.
Keeping it Simple
Selling frozen yogurt isn’t a new concept; there were other big players in the premium frozen yogurt market, the largest being TCBY. Undeterred by the odds, Derek had some ideas about how to make sweetFrog more appealing to consumers than the competitors. He wanted it to be simple and economical for the store owners as well as for families. He also knew that the product had to be consistently appealing. To help accomplish this, he offered a dozen or more flavors of frozen yogurt and changed them daily. The yogurt flavors range from the exotic, such as Raspberry Pomegranate and Honey Lavender, to twists on classics such as Snickerdoodle and Butter Brickle. In addition to offering nearly one hundred different flavors of yogurt, they offer literally hundreds of optional toppings, ranging from fresh fruit and nuts to brownie and cookie crumbs, marshmallows and chocolate chips. Rather than charging based on a certain sized container, customers are charged by the ounce; yogurt, toppings and all. You’re in charge of how much or how little you get.
It’s a formula that has proven to be quite lucrative. The first store was so successful that plans for franchises were put into action. As of this writing, sweetFrog has over 150 locations in over fifteen states along the east coast of the United States and is developing plans to expand to overseas locations. Ownership models include franchises, licensed locations and corporate-owned stores. They have plans to expand across the United States with over two hundred locations by the end of 2013.
The growth that they have experienced has been remarkable considering sweetFrog doesn’t employ an advertising agency and does very little formal marketing. One thing that they do well is harness the power of social media. They rely heavily on Facebook and Twitter and other social media both corporately and through their franchisees to get their brand awareness out en masse. As a means of staying connected to their customers, sweetFrog allows customers to sign up for text message updates of new promotions and to receive discounts when they show their phone at the register.
Fun for Families
Their main appeal is to families with children, and they quickly develop a loyal following of local school and athletic groups as well as churches and youth groups. Store locations are strategically located near movie theaters and shopping plazas near WalMart stores. James Denison, PR/Social Media Associate from the sweetFrog Corporate Office in Richmond, Virginia says, “Store owners often develop a loyal following of customers who not only support the stores for what they stand for but go out of their way to frequent them as a way of ‘investing’ in their business.”
While it does not disclose sales, the franchise fee for a sweetFrog site is $30,000 per location. Franchisees pay a monthly fee of 6% of gross sales, of which 1% goes to marketing. But there is more to sweetFrog than business.
The sweetFrog international outreach initiative currently sponsors nineteen children from Burundi in East Africa. It is a country whose people have suffered genocide at the hands of a ruthless government. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and scores of children have been left orphaned. The sweetFrog sponsorships provide financial support for necessities, schooling and health care for the children they sponsor. Giving back to the community is an important aspect of sweetFrog. They sponsor local events through the American Cancer Society, the Special Olympics and others. The sweetFrog mascots also visit local children’s hospitals monthly to bring fun and cheer to the children.
While Derek credits God for giving him the vision for sweetFrog, he didn’t dive into it irresponsibly. He did his homework and studied the market to develop an implementation strategy to fulfill the vision God had given him. As Isaiah 58:11 says,
"The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail."Isaiah 58:11