Robynne Ma‘i‘i speaks with NRN about working with frozen yogurt and the challenges of developing new flavors
In the crowded segment of self-serve frozen yogurt, it can be hard for a concept to distinguish itself.
New York City-based frozen-yogurt chain 16 Handles, which has 25 locations in five states, is trying to do it with specialized toppings, such as cheesecake bites, rainbow cookies, walnuts in syrup, and a stream of new items that are being developed by corporateRobynne Ma‘i‘i.
A native of Honolulu, Ma‘i‘i also teaches pastry arts at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, N.Y. Previously, she was the department chair for culinary and pastry art at The Art Institute of New York City.
Prior to that, before a stint at Gourmet magazine, Ma‘i‘i made pastry at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and Union Pacific restaurant in New York City. She joined 16 Handles almost a year ago.
Ma‘i‘i recently spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about developing new flavors and the challenges of working with frozen yogurt.
What did you think when you were approached by a frozen yogurt company to work for them?
Admittedly, I’m not a frozen yogurt eater. If I want a treat, I want it to be full fat, full everything, but then I started doing some research and realized how competitive [the frozen yogurt segment] was. And I was impressed by the diversity of the offerings and the interaction with customers, and I thought, 'I would love to be part of this.'
It’s definitely harder than it seems, because of the logistics of working with the flavor houses and the dairies. It’s been really eye opening. And things don’t happen quickly when you’re doing something that’s mass-produced and distributed. It’s been a whole learning process.
Tell me about some of your toppings.
Last fall we did a seven-spice streusel, like on a coffee cake. That was supposed to go with all the holiday yogurt flavors like eggnog and pumpkin and apple pie. Then in early winter we did a smoked almond brittle, and recently we launched “Granola Gone Wild.” It has goji berries, cranberries, chia seeds and extra virgin olive oil.
Do you also work on yogurt flavors?
Every three months we get together and brainstorm flavor ideas. I come up with 20 to 25 flavor ideas, and [founder] Solomon [Choi], Jon Lake, [vice president of operations], and Alex Choi, [controller] give feedback based on what their customers like. And what people like in Williamsburg [in Brooklyn, N.Y.] is really different from what they like in Westchester [county, N.Y.].
Then the dairy [supplier] works with us to make something that’s close to the description we give them, and they send a sample and we taste it and give them notes and they make adjustments. Sometimes they have to go back to the flavor houses and say things like, “Okay, they want less allspice and anise and more cinnamon.”
Also, the people working at different dairy houses in different parts of the country have their own palates, so it’s very, very challenging.
You recently launched a salted caramel flavor. Did you work on that flavor?
We haven’t launched any of my flavor ideas yet. I came up with a Thai iced tea. I was thinking it was going to be such a winner, but people said it was interesting but they wouldn’t probably try it again. So it was a no-go. So we’re working on one that’s more fruit-forward. I can’t tell you about it, but it’s related to my Hawaiian roots. I’m not sure when we’re launching it, though.”
What else are you working on?
I’m working on five different toppings now. Two of them are cake-like, one is a cluster thingy, and one is a crispy cereal variation.