Reinventing The Country’s Best (And Oldest) Yogurt

A young entrepreneur brought the self-serve concept to TCBY, now nearly all of the company's stores that have opened since have adopted the model.
Drew Grossman

I was only looking to open one frozen yogurt shop. It’s kind of crazy looking back and saying that out loud.

Meet Samuel Batt, the owner of 23 TCBY franchises in North and South Carolina. He was the first owner to adopt the self-serve model and the first owner to launch a TCBY frozen yogurt truck. When Batt began his career at TCBY in 2010, his Charlotte, NC, location marked the frozen yogurt icon’s foray into the self-serve concept. Now, just a few years later, Batt’s wildly successful idea has turned his modest plan into a humble empire.

Batt’s is a story of innovation, reinvention, and the genius of naivet.

The now entrepreneur worked as an information technology and management consultant for Accenture in Philadelphia, the city in which he grew up. Until he and his wife left to start a family in Charlotte, his restaurant experience amounted to a few shifts at a bagel shop while in high school. But Batt has an eye for trends and a taste for yogurt, and before he moved South, he noted the proliferation of self-serve shops in Philadelphia’s Center City that were advertising their frozen yogurt as a healthy alternative to ice cream. He liked the concept, but felt the product was lacking.

Enter TCBY, the leader in frozen yogurt since its founding in 1981. Batt ate and hung out at TCBY as a kid and recalls his community’s reaction when its local TCBY closed.

Everyone was kind of over-emotional about a store closing, he says with a laugh, as he was no exception. You don’t typically find that.

With the new self-serve trend identified, he teamed up with the well-known brand and began scouting the Charlotte market. When Batt and his wife arrived, Tasty Yo was the only frozen yogurt company in town. Batt knew a TCBY store would do well, but he wanted to add a twist to the traditional concept, he wanted it to be self-serve.

A New Face For A 30-Year Old Brand

Yogurt is a hot industry as the country is becoming more health conscious, says Brian Mooney, regional director of operations for Famous Brands International, the company that owns TCBY. And self-serve is a fun experience.

When Batt approached TCBY about opening a self-serve store in Charlotte, its development team was working on its own prototype that allowed customers the freedom to create individualized treats by providing access to yogurt machines and a topping bar. But the company was months away from rolling out a prototype.

I was extremely na’ve when I was talking to the development team at TCBY about opening my first franchise, Batt says. I said, Have you heard of these frozen yogurt shops that are going self-serve?’ The development team obviously knew what’s happening in the marketplace. They were actually working on rolling out a prototype in Utah, which is where they used to be headquartered.

When Batt showed an interest in the self-serve concept, the TCBY development team asked him if he’d like to participate in the pilot. Although longtime franchisees were reluctant to convert from the traditional to the self-serve model, Batt was not timid. He wanted to move on the new concept immediately. With oversight from corporate, Batt had near autonomy to design and open his yogurt shop.

The Sweet Taste Of Success

Batt’s inexperience was just the catalyst the company needed to bring the concept to market quickly. When Batt approached the company with enthusiasm and a willingness to experiment, corporate went with it.

They could have easily said, this self-serve style is just a trend; we started the whole frozen yogurt thing, let’s stick to what we are doing,’ Batt says. But they didn’t say that.

Batt’s self-serve locations proved to be a success, and all but two of the 130 TCBY franchises that have opened since 2010 have adopted the self-serve concept. However, corporate TCBY has not dictated what has turned out to be a dramatic reinvention of the marketplace. Rather, as the trend moved toward self-serve, corporate gave franchisees the tools to deliver the concept to their customers. It also allows its franchisees to experiment with new toppings and flavor combinations, so franchisees, especially Batt, constantly talk with customers to find out what they do and don’t like. And Batt trains his staff to engage with customers and note changes that would create a better experience.

But it is the same flexibility from corporate that allowed two franchisees to go against the national trend and open traditional locations that were more in line with their local market. Corporate also allowed existing franchisees to keep the traditional service structure if they chose to do so.

Allowing individual locations to make changes they deem necessary to serve their distinct customer base is an important part of fostering new ideas at TCBY. And when the new ideas are good ones, sometimes a reinvention just comes naturally.

January 13, 2014

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