New Kid on the Block: 16 Handles

I am sure he hears this all the time, but the owner of the new 16 Handles franchise on Chambers really fits the “new kid” descriptor, and in this case, it seems like a real boon to his business. At the age of 25, Neil Hershman owns three other franchises of 16 Handles — this is his fourth — and he acquired them all within a few months. He bought the Murray Hill franchise in April 2019 and East Village and Chelsea three months later.

Ours is the tiniest — it takes up the 9-foot wide former Smoke Shop — but between the four sites, he’s been able to retain 30 employees even now though covid.

He looked at 12 spaces in Tribeca, mostly on Chambers, and took the lease at 155 in December, but it took all this time to get the job done through the pandemic (he was scheduled to open in April). The goal was to “own” downtown and have has a nice even distribution across the bottom of the island for delivery. But he also has a lot of competition for frozen desserts: not only Downtown Yogurt around the corner here, but Ample Hills, Van Leeuwen, Baskin-Robbins. “People just have to get hooked on us, and for that it has to be a customer-driven product.” If a topping is popular but expensive, he keeps it in the list, just to drive traffic.

Most of us know the drill by now: the frozen yogurt comes from taps on the wall — the “handles” part of the pun — which customers serve themselves, along with bins of toppings displayed under a plexi shield, salad-bar style. Your cup is then weighed and sold by the ounce. In the age of corona, this may seem dicey, but every customer has to don gloves provided by the store, and of course be masked.

(My cupful was kind of a sad representation, so I included N.’s masterworks below as well.)

Solomon Choi founded the first 16 Handles in the East Village — the one Hershman now owns — leaving his native California where the fro-yo market was saturated to start what he clearly knew would be a chain in 2008. The brand boomed and then waned over those 12 years, but Hershman has found a way to build his locations back from what he said was near death.

He loves the business — it’s labor and product efficient — and he and his staff are more or less the same age, which sounds like it’s more fun. “We don’t do things the old-school way,” said Hershman, who graduated from GW in three years and worked in finance for two before he got restless. “We make decisions as a group on the fly, there’s no corporate chain of command, we communicate well.” After the George Floyd killing, he asked the staff what they wanted to do, and they decided to give 10 percent of revenue for a week to the ACLU.

This is not his first entrepreneurial move: he Kickstarter-ed a desktop drink cooler that raised $108K on the platform; he promised a friend that if it took off, he would quit his desk job. So he did. Plus he comes from a dessert family — big Carvel people, he said. And he’s working on something new already, but wouldn’t disclose. “It’s a really interesting time in New York,” he noted, “when tenants and landlords might actually be able to agree on something that makes sense.”