Yogurtland CEO Phillip Chang Dishes On All Things Frozen Yogurt - Exclusive Interview

If your idea of the perfect snack or dessert is loading up a frozen yogurt cup with your favorite flavors and toppings, you have Yogurtland to thank for it. The now international chain was one of the first to introduce the now wildly popular concept of self-serve froyo, and has managed to stay ahead of the pack even as countless competitors have come on the scene. Yogurtland served up its first cup of froyo in 2006 in Fullerton, California. Fast forward 15 years, and Yogurtland has grown to nearly 300 locations across eight countries. All the while, it has maintained a reputation for endless innovation, creating more than 200 unique flavors over the years.

So what's the secret to Yogurtland's sweet success? We went right to the source. In an exclusive interview with Mashed Yogurtland CEO Phillip Chang dished on all things froyo, and shared what it takes to become "the world's largest, best-known, and fastest-growing frozen yogurt chain."

Froyo is not dead, according to Yogurtland CEO Phillip Chang

Is frozen yogurt dead? What is the future of fro-yo?

Well, there's ups and downs. We go back maybe 30, 40 years. Froyo was there, it's always evolving. Of course, obviously right now, per capita consumption has been down quite a lot, but we are overcoming it. When you build a strong brand, a very trusted brand, there's a loyalty and people stick with that. And that's where we are right now.

There's some struggle. But we have an amazing research and development team [at Yogurtland]. So we have four people that are all in, just developing flavor and we have our own yogurt manufacturer. We are the only ones. Nobody has their own yogurt manufacturer. So our own recipe has been built for over 15 years. And we've [created] many flavors, that's our strength. And because of that, I believe we are evolving and not just surviving and thriving, but growing.

Yogurtland is kind of considered responsible for this self-serve yogurt trend becoming so popular. You guys were one of the first ones on the scene. And now there's competitors everywhere. So how do you as a brand, as a company, how do you continue to stay relevant today?

We were the pioneers. We are the one who started all these crazy follow ups and copies, maybe over several thousands in the U.S. And it's not just the U.S., it's worldwide. So I'm thrilled that we've [influenced] more than, I don't know, maybe five, six, seven thousand copycats out there. Can you imagine that? So I'm very happy about that.

At the end of the day, it's really about going back to basic fundamentals. So we pay attention to the details. I think it always starts from your bottom line. That philosophy, why you do your business. When you focus on that, then you don't sidetrack. So it's not just short term profit-making. What we're aiming for is, maybe for decades, to stay alive, and then support the community.

So when we do not lose who we are, where we are coming from — to share love, joy, and hope — and when we focus on that, we're not going to just squeeze a profit. And luckily, at our company, we don't have any outside venture capital or private equity or any other interested party in here every quarter, wanting to see the profit so that they can take some. We don't have any of that. So we can focus on what we want to achieve for the long-term, and stay who we are. And that's the main thing. And then from there, we can always build great flavors, keep investing in that R&D, and in evolving. And customers see that. Customers appreciate, "Oh Yogurtland is different."

CEO Phillip Chang on why Yogurtland continues to lead the industry

From a consumer standpoint, we have all of these options today. What do you think are the main factors that differentiate Yogurtland from its competitors and make it the best out of the pack?

The customer would like to see that there is that trusted quality and there's no cheating anywhere. So we keep that trust and I think that's really the most important. All those other stores are trying to copy our look — the yogurt flavors and the store — and that's pretty much it. But actually what they really have to copy from us is what we believe in, who we are, and our people. How we manage people's performance. It is not about just squeezing it as much as possible. They get the profit out of it from franchises, from employees, from just anywhere.

But when you really focus on why I do business ... I don't ever forget because I'm an immigrant. And I came from really a humble background. I had to really survive when I arrived in America. So I don't ever forget that. My philosophy of what I believe in is always there. I practice that even now. So I think that's kind of similar to our company culture and our people's behavior. So we hear this a lot from vendors, that our company is very different. There's something. There's a care, and there is a kindness and genuineness. That eventually shows in the franchises, to a vendor, whoever we have a relationship with. They realize that. And I think that's a real strength of our company, not just about so many great flavors. Yes. We have that, but we are going beyond that as to what we serve.

Yogurtland CEO Phillip Chang on surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and coming out stronger

The pandemic has affected businesses in so many ways and you've had to sort of reinvent your franchise along the way to keep up with it all. What does that look like?

Well, running a business is not just about that item, what you sell. It is really about the team and who we have, how we work together. And that main core of who we are, what we focus on. So when we change to a different menu and different area ... even when we change our business to a totally different kind of business, we still can perform the same, like we do right now. Because it's all about people and how we build the culture of working together and how we trust each other. And that defines who we are.

So changing the business, different menu items, it's just technical knowledge. We get it. And that's it. The rest of that is pretty much all the same. So if we change our menu dramatically, like actually we did with one of the new businesses [Egg N Bird], again it worked. It's a chicken sandwich concept. Of course, it took quite some time to develop that menu, but the rest of it is pretty much all the same. And we have the same staff, we can do exactly the same thing and we are creating amazing stuff right now.

Did you have to scale back Yogurtland's offerings because of the pandemic?

Well, we have a simple menu. Basically frozen yogurt, right? So we didn't really have to scale back. But it was a matter of how we simplified the way of serving it. Actually, we are maybe one of the most impacted by the pandemic, because we are self-serve. So we had to adapt how we serve and change our format ... temporarily. So a customer comes in, and they tell us what they like. And then we serve them and that's the format. And then we did a lot of pickup orders, so that [customers] can call ahead and we can prepare and then they can pick it up. We're trying to minimize the exposure to other people in the store. We really got into online ordering and third-party delivery stuff. And we did a lot. So actually, that helped us a lot, to evolve different ways of serving our customers.

CEO Phillip Chang shares new Yogurtland creations coming this year

Something that you've mentioned a couple of times is how important your R&D team is and how important innovation has been.In the last several months you guys have launched these plant-based flavors, summer fruit bowls, healthier smoothie bowls. Can you share anything else that might be coming down the pipeline later this year?

We're known for offering new items, and new ideas all the time. We offer about 24 flavors a year. Can you imagine creating and introducing that many flavors? Of course these days it's slowed down. But we have such a strong team to build that.

This time, for back-to-school season, we're trying to bring in nostalgic flavors. Also, there's a National Coffee Day. We're trying some new flavors in honor of that. And you know, October 7 is National Spoon Day. And we're known for those big spoons that our customers love. So we're going to give out a free large spoon with any purchase of $10 or more. That will be fun. And then also at the end of the year, you'll see new holiday flavors and a vegan [version] also. So a lot of new flavors coming up.

CEO Phillip Chang on the best Yogurtland flavors

What is the most popular Yogurtland flavor?

So that is very challenging because when we plan the flavors, we try to have all those flavors be evenly spread. We don't want to have one certain flavor that we rely on too much. So we'll look at it and ask how we can build other flavors as strong as those most popular. So we always try to build on that. Because of that effort, our flavors are quite evenly spread out. So let's say when there's 16 flavors [available]. Each flavor will have maybe a 6%, 7% spread. Some are higher, but they don't even go more than 10%. And the lower ones don't go below 2%. So it's all mostly between 6% to 7%.

I'll say tart is of course the number one favorite, and then maybe vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, which is boring, but people, they love it. And then maybe cookies and cream, that's really popular too. It hard. It's really hard to pick just a few flavors.

What's your favorite flavor?

Also for me, tart is number one. Yeah, very clean. And also pistachio. Our pistachio is just amazing. The secret is we use real pistachio butter. Because of that they say it's amazing. Nobody ever can beat this flavor because we use real butter in it.

CEO Phillip Chang shares his frozen yogurt hack

As the CEO of a frozen yogurt company, how many times a week do you eat frozen yogurt?

I still eat it two or three times a week. Sometimes in our office, I have to taste a lot. It also is a quality control thing for all the new flavors coming up and all the new ideas coming up. I've got to eat that. So I love my job and that's fun.

So what is your go-to topping combo? Are you more fruit or are you more like candy and chocolate?

Well, I go for both and it depends on the mood. But I do something very unique. And maybe this is something our customers should try. Typically, people will put their flavors first. And then they will go get toppings. They can go either way, either fruit or those sweet toppings. What I do is think of this the other way around, upside down. So you put fruit first, or whatever toppings you like, put those and then put some yogurt.

 ... That's my unique way of serving frozen yogurt. You can put quite a lot of fruit. So I put a lot of different fruits and then yogurt. And then granola, maybe some nuts, that stuff. And then it's an amazing meal replacement and becomes very healthy too.

Is froyo healthy? Yogurtland's CEO weighs in

There's an argument that all of these different flavors and topping options can make it feel more like ice cream and more like a dessert rather than like a health food alternative. What is your response to that?

Yeah, that's a challenge these days, throughout the whole industry. There are just so many easy ways to eat healthy and so many great foods out there. And of course, [eating frozen yogurt can] add some weight on you and that's always challenging. But you have to be cognitive about what we are eating and how much we are eating and control it for yourself.

And [with frozen yogurt] you can reduce a significant amount of sugar, compared with ice cream. This yogurt tastes almost like ice cream, but you are reducing the amount of sugar content dramatically. And then there are active cultures in it. It's very healthy for your gut. So this is a very healthy treat. As long as you control the quantity.

We've heard that frozen yogurt starts from a powder first, right? Or is that not right?

No, actually ... Because we have our own manufacturer, we're making our own, which is that whole liquid form. So it comes from the manufacturer and then gets brought in. Maybe some companies might add powder for flavoring, or are making it a different way. Because at least in California, it is illegal to make yogurt in the store without a license. The government looks at it as manufacturing. That's the current regulation, so we are not supposed to create our yogurt in the store. So that's why using powder and making it in the store could cause some tricky questions or might be a violation. We are the only one company who owns a manufacturing plant.

CEO Phillip Chang shares details on new store concept, Holsom by Yogurtland

Let's talk about these two new concepts that you guys have started up, Holsom and Egg N Bird. What was the inspiration to bring about these new concepts that are really getting away from frozen yogurt?

Holsom is a more of an extension of what we serve. We want to go beyond just frozen yogurt. Because we talked about before, about how do we thrive? How do we adapt to new demand? And in this pandemic, sales are down and all that. So we started from there.

There are fruit bowls and grain bowls and toast also, there's healthy avocado stuff. So it's really healthy. So we don't have to only serve yogurt, but the customer can enjoy more. While their kid is eating yogurt, mom can get some healthy toast or some fruit bowl stuff. So that's the Holsom concept we prepared. And since we have an amazing team in the company, we can expand ... We can create a lot of new stuff, really fun stuff, that's our strength. So that's what we want to explore.

CEO Phillip Chang talks newest restaurant, Egg N Bird

Egg N Bird is such a unique idea, this egg and chicken sandwich shop. It seems very bold to move into this space in the middle of these fast food chicken sandwich wars. It's already such a crowded field.

We started this way before the pandemic. We didn't start it because of the pandemic. We always had a passion to create a new concept. So we came up with a great egg sandwich, chicken sandwich. We're really the new kids on the block and we're busting it, our customers go crazy.

What do you think gives Egg N Bird a leg up at this moment?

First of all, our people. We have amazing people, staff, working culture, and all that. So there is a good backbone and that's the most important. Our menu items, anybody can learn how to make that stuff and learn those skills. It's technical stuff you can teach. Something you cannot teach is about people's beliefs. So it's the unteachable stuff we already have as a people. Just changing menu items is not as difficult as you think, because when you look at the big picture, what you want to do, learning that technique, that menu item, anybody can do it. At the end, it's really all about our heart and soul, how much we want to put it in.

And the good thing is my background, many of our staff's backgrounds, we are really international, our ethnic groups are really diverse. So we can put together lots of great ideas. I'm also a world traveler. So I have a good understanding of many different menu items and also have a different way of looking at things. That's our strength. So when we create things, everybody jumps in. It's a chicken sandwich, but I'm very proud that ours is not just the same as somebody else's. We have worldwide sourcing, a global way of bringing flavors in. So that's why when we create this flavor from scratch, we have a very unique flavor. And people know that it's good, but they cannot figure out what this is.

Are there any secret ingredients in there?

Yeah, there is.

CEO Phillip Chang on Yogurtland's true mission to be more than just a froyo chain

Yogurtland has been recognized across the board for its business model and leadership approach. Can you talk a little bit about why you think that's worked so well for you?

So it starts from what I believe in, who I am, why I do this business, why we do what we do. As a Christian background, what do I want to achieve in my life? It's not just to make some wealth and then have an easier life. That's not it. I want to achieve something valuable. I want to create a family, we want to grow together with the same goal of sharing love and joy and hope. To do that, we've got to have the same beliefs. So when you bring in people with very similar beliefs, you really click.

We support people all over the world. Our mindset is like, we're a nonprofit organization using a profit-based organization system. Because to support people we have to make a profit. So we need a tool. So I always look at business as a tool to achieve what I really believe in. Money is just simply a good tool to achieve what we believe. I always believe money is like a multiplier of who you are. So wherever your heart is, when you have money, it can really be an amazing tool to achieve that. That's why we need money, but we cannot focus on money. And so when we do not forget about that, then we can go achieve what we want to be.

Philanthropy work and working with charities have been a major driving force in your professional life. Are there any projects or organizations that you're currently working with that you would like to share more about?

Sharing is not just one time. I have been practicing that from the time when I still had very little. I think that practice is really important for anyone. If you cannot share what you have, regardless of how much you have, you will never be able to share when you make big money, because you haven't practiced that. So it's like muscle building. If you cannot live like that when you have little, and start in a small way, then when you grow big, suddenly you cannot lift those heavy weights. It's impossible. So that's how I look at it and that's what we've been practicing all this time.

And lately, we've started to share what we're doing with people, so we can inspire them. ... We've been involved with an organization called Rescuing Lives, which is helping widows and orphans. And then, Children's Miracle Network. So we are focusing more on education, children, and underprivileged people. And we don't focus only on the U.S., but more on Third-World countries where the dollar goes much further. Can you imagine that about $50 a month will help one kid with everything? Education, clothing, it will cover everything. So we are really changing their lives.

You can keep up with Yogurtland's current promotions and new flavor rollouts via Facebook and Instagram