Kafoo cools down Tel Aviv

American entrepreneur David Bardin says opening up a frozen yogurt chain in Israel is a dream come true.

David Bardin 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Bardin 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There's no denying it, frozen yogurt is enjoying a renaissance. The hit frozen dessert of the 1980s has regained popularity and is now being tipped as the new better-for-you snack around the globe. American entrepreneur David Bardin, who has been living in Tel Aviv since 2002, says his love for yogurt and the marketing potential he sees here led him, with a friend, to co-invest some $4 million in the local frozen yogurt field. Two months ago Bardin, 39, opened Kafoo on Rehov Ibn Gvirol. The name of his store, which was thought up by renowned lyricist Meir Goldberg, not only sounds cool in English but translates to "frozen" from the Hebrew. Bardin says his aim is to open 40 stores around the country in the next two years. He is hoping to have a Jerusalem branch of Kafoo up and running in the next few months. Yogurt's aura of health is what attracted investors 20 years ago and what has helped bring this tasty treat back in style. Key words like "low-fat," "low-calorie," and "active cultures" can be found accompanying almost all new frozen yogurt products. Bardin says the "real-frozen-yogurt" craze, as it is known in North America, is not a fad at all. "In the US," he says, "ice cream sales are going down and frozen yogurt sales are going up. Frozen yogurt is something that fits into a healthy lifestyle. People are not going to get bored of health. This is a meal supplement or a meal replacement and it's going to become a part of one's daily schedule." Indeed, according to a recent report by the US Department of Agriculture, frozen yogurt production in the United States jumped 15 percent since 2001, while the production of regular ice cream dropped 2% during the same time period. Frozen yogurt first hit the shelves in 1972. But its characteristic tart flavor didn't appeal to consumers who wanted an ice cream clone without the fat. Manufacturers came up with the idea to dress up the tart taste more like ice cream. The trick worked and sweetened frozen yogurt became all the rage in the 1980s and '90s. In a 1996 press release sent out by the American frozen yogurt chain TCBY noting its product's aliya, the company wrote: "The Israeli market presents many opportunities for development. Israel has the highest per capita consumption of ice cream in the Middle East and consumers are already familiar with frozen yogurt as an alternative to ice cream... With the growing health consciousness in Israel, we are confident the local consumer will soon discover you do not have to sacrifice taste to sacrifice calories." The trend came to a lull in the '00s as the health-food craze set in. Consumers began questioning just how healthy frozen yogurt that tasted like ice cream could actually be. Enter Pinkberry, the Starbucks of frozen yogurt chains. Founded by immigrants from South Korea, where tart-tasting frozen yogurt was popular for years, Pinkberry opened its first store in Los Angeles in 2005. The idea quickly spread, and today dozens of real frozen yogurt chains have sprouted up across North America. In addition to Pinkberry, there's Red Mango (also from South Korea), Yogen Fruz (Canadian), Yolato and Berrywild, among others. All of them offer a soft-serve creamy yogurt treat with a tangy taste. Kafoo is Israel's "real frozen yogurt" delegate. IT TOOK Bardin one and a half years to develop his product. Like the popular chains abroad, Kafoo's yogurts are riding the healthy eating trend. "There's no cookie dough topping, but there is flax seed; there's no M&Ms option, but there is coconut," says Bardin of his health-oriented add-ons. So, what's the difference between "real frozen yogurt" and "frozen yogurt"? Most desserts called frozen yogurt are made by mixing powder, milk and sugar. Real frozen yogurt is made from real yogurt and usually contains probiotics (which are believed to assist digestion and the immune system). Kafoo's yogurt matches that of its American counterparts (taste, texture) but is Israeli in style. Like the chains abroad, there are just two flavors at Kafoo (though others are under production): plain and chocolate. The toppings, Bardin explains, are what make it Israeli. Kafoo has a whole range including halva, tehina, passion fruit and dates. Moreover, Kafoo's personnel are not just yogurt servers, but they've all been trained in nutritional facts regarding the yogurt and have learned what topping goes with what. "The yogurt is the star of the show," says Bardin. "Some people try far too many toppings." During our interview, Bardin asks his staff to prepare samples for me to taste. The plain yogurt turns out to be far tastier than the chocolate. Undoubtedly the best concoction was the interesting combination of plain yogurt with halva, dates, flax seed and honey. Runners-up included plain yogurt with tropical fruits, coconut and passion fruit syrup and chocolate yogurt with fresh cherries, raspberry sauce and nuts. "I'm addicted to it," says Bardin of his product. "I eat six to eight full helpings a day. And I taste the product every half hour [to check its quality]." In addition to a fresh, trendy design to Kafoo, the cleanliness jumps out at potential customers. "I bring my American sanity that the place must be cleaned and hygienic," he says. His staff has also been trained in etiquette (note to new customers: Look at the spoons all pointing in the same direction). "Does it help sales? I don't know. But it's what I want." Bardin's investment into the food industry is his first. His previous jobs included real estate work in Eastern Europe and stock trader in the US and Israel. He moved here six years ago. "I came for ideological reasons. I'm a Zionist. I knew I wanted to give it a try living here," says Bardin, who is looking into making aliya. "I miss New York, but I love living in Tel Aviv." Though his first foray in the food business, Bardin says his forebears started the Horowitz-Margareten matza factory in the 1800s. His parents (dad - real estate agent; mom - invitations business) and sister (mother of two children) all live in New York. "It would be easier in the US," says Bardin, who is single, of his new venture, "but I enjoy the challenge of doing business in Israel. And there's so much room to grow here. There's huge potential." Based on one visit to Kafoo, it would seem his investment was a good one. Without undertaking any advertising campaigns, Kafoo already boasts a steady stream of customers. Bardin reports that more than 90% of his regulars are Israelis. He says that he thought more Americans would come when he opened shop, but notes that it's the local crowd he needs to survive. In addition to a tangier taste and healthy toppings, the price point for a serving of frozen-yogurt is pretty standard abroad, running between $5-$7. At Kafoo, a small helping costs NIS 14 without any toppings, and a larger serving runs NIS 18. Each topping is NIS 3. "I wanted this to be something for everybody," says Bardin. "I use gourmet products but do not charge gourmet prices." The casually dressed Bardin says he fields 10-15 calls a day from local investors interested in franchising Kafoo. At the moment, he and his best friend from college are keeping full control of the business. As for future plans, Bardin says: "This is my dream. Making people happy and enjoying it and taking on a challenge and being in a country I want to live in. It's exciting."