Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"The taste that launched a thousand parking tickets"

“Sorry ice cream, I’m on my way to Pinkberry.”
-from The Pinkberry song

Two winters ago, I was so excited to return to my hometown—koreatown, LA—to taste what was supposed to be the ultimate frozen dessert—Pinkberry. I was shocked to hear all my white friends tell me about this amazing new product that people were crazy about—fat free frozen yogurt with delicious fresh fruit toppings, but the part I could not believe was that it was an Asian American product. I could see why the LA Times lauded the treat as “the taste that launched a thousand parking tickets,” because it took about an hour to find parking anywhere near the original structure that was erected on the corner of 6th Street and Berendo. Previously a sketchy k-town corner with a couple Korean bars, apartments, and restaurants, now I saw people of all different ethnicities piled up in a line curving outside onto the sizzling sidewalk (yes, this is LA in the winter), waiting for their cups of this mysterious treat.

After about 30 minutes of standing in line, I finally got my Pinkberry—an original medium size with strawberries, mangoes, and kiwi, and then I thought…wait, this is just Korean yogurt!! A couple of Korean American business partners, Shelly Hwang and Young Lee, had mixed a popular Korean snack with a revival of the ‘80s frozen yogurt trend and developed what actually turned out to be a hit new product. This was an amazing experience for many people in our community, and people still talk about it all over town because this was the first time a Korean American product turned into a popular national franchise.

Pinkberry first opened in winter 2005 when Shelly Hwang, a business student, and Young Lee, an interior designer, partnered up and opened a store in Los Angeles. Since it began to pick up popularity, it came across some minor problems (not enough yogurt in it to be called frozen yogurt by the FDA) but mostly, they have been on the path to bigger corporate success 3 years in a row. They recently introduced a new flavor of yogurt—coffee—to celebrate their 3rd year anniversary. Recently, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz invested some million dollars into Pinkberry, expanding it to locations across the US. Their website boasts over 20 locations in California and 9 in New York, with more pending. Pinkberry has also started to appear in television commercials advertising joint efforts with major credit card companies.

The ultimate concept of the product seems to be a healthy, delicious treat that is low in fat (it’s ultimate trendy appeal) with a range of fresh fruit, cereal, nut, and even some distinctly Asian toppings (mochi and sweet red beans). The yogurt comes in three flavors: original, green tea, and coffee. The store designs and products (designed by co-founder Lee) reflect the healthy, modern artsy lifestyle of young trendy nutritionists -- pastel colors, bubbles and all.

Business owners all across Koreatown (and even Thayer St!!) have emulated faux pinkberries lol, off the top of my head, I can think of Juniper, Snowberry, Kiwiberry, Mr. Berry, Red Mango (the original South Korean store that Pinkberry actually semi-copied), Cefiore, would think they would at least significantly change the name to not include -berry. But apparently there are lots and lots more.

I feel Pinkberry is relevant to Asian American ‘popular culture,’ because of how it’s taken an Asian dessert and combined it with American marketing techniques to produce a new “cultural phenomenon.” Because of the small-business stereotype of most Asian-owned businesses, especially in places like ethnic (Asian country here)-towns, Pinkberry is important, representing a breakthrough to the larger corporate world of entrepreneurial success. I’m not saying that people will eat Pinkberry and think,
“wow this Asian product totally gives me a new outlook on the Korean American community,” but I feel in terms of Asian businesses, it is a step in a good direction ^^.

No comments: