In the summer of 2008, when Marvin Gurman walked into Yeh! Yogurt and Café on Montreal’s Boulevard Saint-Laurent – just across from Schwartz’s deli – the colours, concept and feel of the place blew him away.
Not only was the self-serve frozen-yogurt shop right on trend with a movement happening in the United States, he was impressed with the very cool clientele drifting in and out. He called his identical twin brother, Jon, and said, “You’ve got to come see this.”
By October of that year, the Gurman twins – co-CEOs of Montreal-based JCorp Inc., their family’s wholesale clothing company – had partnered with Yeh! Yogurt’s co-founders to create Goyogo Ltd. While it started as a hobby for them, the Gurmans quickly became passionate about the business, adding new stores and branching into franchising, even painting their cars – Jon’s Ferrari and Marvin’s Lamborghini – hot pink with logos to match the decor of the stores.
By December, 2012, they had bought out their partners, Grace Yeh and Jean-Daniel Nadeau, and began to expand in earnest, jumping from four stores to 14 and signing up new franchisees. The company now has corporate-owned or franchised locations in Montreal, Toronto, Halifax, Saint John, upstate New York and Burlington, Mass., with plans to build the chain to 35 stores by the end of this year. Goyogo has about 15 employees and annual revenue of $5-million.
But it wasn’t love at first bite. When Marvin first tasted frozen yogurt while checking out the trend in California, he didn’t like it, but “it grew on him.” Once he became involved in the business, he started learning about its different types, tasting all kinds of yogurt in his travels around the globe. A real aficionado now, he swears his company’s yogurt is “as good or better than anyone else’s yogurt in the world.”
With JCorp’s annual sales to retailers in Canada and the United States – Target, JCPenney and Wal-Mart are among its clients – estimated at more than $100 million, the pieces for the Yeh! Yogurt chain’s rapid expansion were already in place. The 54-year-old twins, who grew up in Côte Saint-Luc, Que., and have worked together in the apparel industry for 35 years, see the business as a long-term investment.
“Almost all the stores are profitable, 99 per cent,” Marvin says. “On the corporate side, not yet. This is the growth period. You have to get up to 75 stores or more to really start to make money. The franchisees will make money, the corporate stores will make money – and we own corporate stores – but you need to keep hiring more people. As it grows, we need to reinvest in more people, so it’s a struggle before we see the return.”
Question: What differentiates Yeh! Yogurt from the competition?
Jon and Marvin Gurman: Yeh! Yogurt is a more sophisticated experience. We call ourselves the Starbucks of the yogurt business. A lot of college kids come, hang out and enjoy the atmosphere, although we get people of all ages. Some locations have fireplaces, leather lounge chairs and wi-fi. Music is very important.
But the success of Yeh! is the taste. It’s why we’re so popular in Montreal. Our yogurt is made right on the premises, in the back of every store, so it’s fresh. That’s the difference. Our way is a little more difficult. It doesn’t come in frozen like in some of the other yogurt shops.
For some flavours, we use real Greek yogurt and others are regular yogurt with milk. Then we add the flavourings to it. We also have alternative products that set us apart from the other guys – crepes, coffee, s’mores and a cookie concept. It’s especially important for the winter months.
Q: Is winter a challenge?
A: Definitely, but we need alternative products, even in summer, to go with the yogurt. It could be a bagel or another healthy treat but it’s got to be something that fits into the concept. We wouldn’t put pizza in a yogurt shop.
Q: But you’d put in bagels?
A: Maybe, if it was a healthy kind of bagel. Breakfast is one thing we really want to introduce to the shops because we think breakfast is a perfect fit. Our yogurt shops already have crepes and waffles that we make in front of the customer. The crepes are really working for us but 90 per cent of the business is the yogurt, just coming out of those machines – all sold by weight. It’s also important to us to have very clean stores. Cleanliness is super high on our priority list.