Walk into any one of the nearly 500 Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt stores in 15 countries and after you’ve paid for your cup of yogurt, the cashier will say something like, “Now you get to make a decision: Do you want a green spoon or a pink spoon?”
It’s almost impossible not to grin as you ponder that question. Like every other element of Menchie’s—the world’s largest self-serve frozen yogurt franchise—that’s by design. “Our business is selling smiles,” says Menchie’s 33-year-old CEO Amit Kleinberger. “We just happen to do that by selling frozen yogurt.”
The explosive growth that Menchie’s has experienced—it began with a single store in a Los Angeles suburb in 2007 and now has $178 million in annual revenues—takes sterner stuff than smiles. Kleinberger has it. He was shaped as a leader, he says, during the three years he served in combat units with the Israeli army. “The military is the finest institution in the world for leadership,” he says. “There you learn the value of leading people not because they need to follow you but because they believe in you and want to follow you.”
At 18, the Jerusalem-born Kleinberger enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces, and his education began. A commander named Simon was especially inspiring. “Any time we were facing an objective,” Kleinberger says, “Simon didn’t just tell us what we were about to do, he spent a significant amount of time telling us the background of the mission and why we were doing it. He would share stories about the people we were protecting that made the operations personal to us. By painting a picture of what was at stake he enrolled us in his vision.”
In one operation on the West Bank, an enemy combatant hijacked a bus and ran over Kleinberger along with several other members of his unit. Kleinberger remembers little of the incident, other than waking up in a military hospital. The brush with death has made him, he says, steadfast when things get tough in the highly competitive soft-serve biz. “I understand how to funnel internal frustrations, and no matter what, I never get upset or angry,” he says. “It’s nearly impossible to shake me out of my calmness.”
When he returned to active duty after a recovery of several months, Kleinberger went on to become a commander himself. “That’s when I learned that a great leader puts himself after his team,” he says. “You eat last, you shower last.” He leads Menchie’s by that principle. “The needs of my team are more important than my own needs,” Kleinberger says. Putting people before profits, he says, he looks for every opportunity for his team to gather and celebrate each other. He brings food trucks into the parking lot when a new store opens and gives all employees a couple of hours off to get to know each other; he treats his staff to a buffet lunch every Friday; he mans the grill during companywide barbecues. And, he says, he’s accessible and approachable to staff on every level. “A great culture is not something that you just declare,” Kleinberger says. “It’s something that you show every day. Anybody who needs to talk to me about anything, I will make the time to do so.”
That door is especially wide open for veterans. Menchie’s is a member of VetFran, an organization dedicated to providing mentorship and employment in the franchise world for veterans and their families. In 2011 the group launched a campaign called “Operation Enduring Opportunity,” and in the next three years, over 150,000 veterans and military spouses found work in the franchise industry, with more than 5,100 becoming franchise owners. (Menchie’s offers veterans a $10,000 discount in franchise fees.)
On Veterans Day, Menchie’s is giving thanks to the men and women who serve in a small but sweet way: free frozen yogurt to all veterans and active duty members, with, of course, an extra helping of smiles from the Menchie’s crew.