The taste that launched 1,000 parking tickets

Times Staff Writer

This is a story about yogurt, but it is also about entrepreneurship, financial and cultural expectations, beating the heat, beating the caloric system and parking. It's a feel-good story about an ambitious 32-year-old Korean woman whose small business has become successful beyond all reasonable expectations. And it's a feel-bad story about a sleepy neighborhood attacked, out of nowhere, by an army of frozen-yogurt fiends.

On Huntley Drive just south of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, a small frozen-yogurt shop is nestled between NutriBliss, the natural Viagra store, and a private home. It's called, preposterously, Pinkberry, and it has become an obsession with weight-conscious Angelenos. The yogurt itself is tangy and stiff, without the overbearing sweetness that screams artificial flavoring. And because it is the owner's own recipe, it is impossible to find elsewhere.

So Pinkberry addicts come from Los Feliz, the Valley, South Bay and Beverly Hills to get their fix. They circle their cars around the neighborhood looking for parking and wait patiently in 20-minute lines that have been known to go up the block and around the corner.

It has been called "Crackberry" and "frozen heroin juice" by its fans and detractors because many of the college kids, television writers and well-to-do families who cheerfully queue up as many as four nights in a single week agree with food blogger Rosie O'Neill, who wrote recently: "I would get Pinkberry IV'ed into my veins if I could."

Leslie Grossman, an actress, described it like this: "The first time you try it, you're like -- 'Eh,' and then you're like, 'Did I eat that whole thing?' And then the next day you are like, 'I could really go for a Pinkberry right now.' "

Before Pinkberry, there was a tattoo parlor and before that there was a medical marijuana distribution center and before that there was a garage. Then 2 1/2 years ago, Hyekyung Hwang (a.k.a. Shelly) signed a lease for the 600-square-foot space and decided to open an English Tea Room. The neighbors shook their heads, laughed and wished her luck. When she asked for outdoor seating, the neighbors voted it down. When she asked for a beer and wine license (so she could serve sherry), they voted that down too. Hwang crunched the numbers, and it didn't look good. She scrapped the idea and decided to open a frozen-yogurt store instead.

Hwang, the daughter of a factory owner in South Korea, came to America in 1992 for business school at USC. She is smart, quiet and tougher than she seems. Her business partner, Young Lee, a kick boxer turned architect, was once a bouncer for nightclubs before he started to design them.

Hwang understands that people want food that is healthy and low-calorie and that they will pay more money for it than you might think. Pinkberry yogurt is made with real milk and is about 20 calories per ounce, and a medium cup with three fresh fruit toppings (nothing comes from a can or is soaked in syrup) costs $4.95. What Lee knows is that aesthetics matter, and even if you are only going to spend 20 minutes in a yogurt store it should be a refreshing 20 minutes. So he painted the inside of Pinkberry in sherbet hues of peach, green and blue, and used Philippe Starck furniture and Le Klint plastic hanging lamps from Design Within Reach because, he said, they remind him of yogurt. The effect is modern Asian, not kindergarten.

Hwang and Lee agreed that the store should be streamlined, so there are only two flavors of yogurt -- plain and green tea. You cannot buy anything else. Not even water. There is little waste and the staff can be trained in a few hours (it's not hard to yank down on the handle of a soft-serve yogurt machine).

By February 2005, one month after it opened, Pinkberry was already turning a profit. The lines started that summer. By that August, it was discovered by Daily Candy. By spring, Los Angeles had fallen hopelessly in love. The little store on Huntley where the tattoo parlor used to be now serves about 1,300 to 1,600 customers a day.

This, of course, was not exactly what the neighbors thought would happen. Hwang said when she first opened the store the neighbors were friendly and welcoming. "They were like, 'Good luck, Asian lady' and buy a yogurt," she said. Now they are plagued with increasing traffic on their once sleepy street of million-dollar bungalows and people double parking "just for a minute" to run in for a quick Pinkberry (though with the long lines, there is no such thing as a quick Pinkberry any more).

For neighbors, there is Pinkberry trash on their lawns, and sometimes Pinkberry customers too. The angriest of the neighbors stand outside at night to remind yogurt lovers that the street is all permit parking, and they will be ticketed if they park illegally. But even that doesn't always work.

"The bottom line is the customers that go to Pinkberry don't mind paying $68 for a tub of yogurt," said Huntley Avenue resident Oliver Wilson, handily adding the price of a parking ticket to the $7.45 cost of a large yogurt. "It's all Escalades and Mercedes and BMWs. You tell them, 'Don't park here,' and they do. They can afford it."

The neighbors held meetings to discuss the problem, and talked about it in between meetings as they walked their dogs. They explained their situation to the city and demanded that measures be taken to make sure people were not parking illegally. The city has sent extra parking-enforcement officers to Huntley to ticket customers who are parked illegally. The city also has asked Hwang to station a security guard by the front door seven nights a week to remind people that the street is permit-parking only, to make sure customers put their trash in the garbage can and to make sure that the line goes north toward Santa Monica Boulevard and away from the neighbors.

The guard Hwang hired is also handy for cutting the line off at 10:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the yogurt shop closes. But the neighbors say it's still not enough. "It's really become intolerable," said Tom Alexander, who lives three houses down from the store, even as his wife, Jeanne, admitted that the yogurt is not bad.

There is another hearing on Sept. 18, and the outside chance that the city of West Hollywood will shut down Pinkberry -- but nobody really thinks that will happen. And that's not what the neighbors want anyway.

What they really want is for Pinkberry to move up to Santa Monica Boulevard, where Hwang could set up outdoor seating and the pedestrian traffic would help other West Hollywood businesses. That's what the customers would like too. "It's not convenient. Parking is a nightmare, there's nowhere to sit down and eat, and the sun beats down on you in the afternoon line," said one fan who added that he nevertheless comes to Pinkberry three times a week.

All this might be moot anyway. For the past year Hwang and Lee have been working to expand Pinkberry in a big way -- and when they do the crowds on Huntley will likely thin out. Next week a second Pinkberry is scheduled to open in Koreatown, on the corner of Sixth and Berendo streets. "All my friends that live in Koreatown say West Hollywood is too far," Hwang said. "I say, 'OK. All right.' "

The third Pinkberry will open on La Brea and Melrose avenues in early September, and pink and green "Pinkberry coming soon" signs have gone up in storefronts in Studio City, Beverly Hills, Westwood and Larchmont Village. Hwang said in the last year she has signed leases on 30 locations in L.A. alone. She's also been traveling. With the help of her friend D. Choi, who has lived in New York for 30 years, she plans to open 30 locations there. She has seen properties in Las Vegas and San Diego as well. It sounds like a scarily rapid expansion, but Hwang said she has been careful in choosing locales. "We are targeting neighborhoods where people care about their health and body," she said, "where people want to diet."

Meanwhile, Pinkberry has already encountered what appears to be a copycat. Across the street from the Beverly Center, a sign announces the upcoming arrival of a nonfat frozen-yogurt shop called Kiwiberry, which already has a location in Claremont. John Bae, 26, also Korean and one of Kiwiberry's founding partners, was vague about what differentiated Kiwiberry and Pinkberry. "It is generally the same idea," he said, "but the taste of it is more like, a richer taste."

Hwang does not seem concerned about the competition. When Kiwiberry's logo looked too similar to Pinkberry's, she let Bae know it would be a problem, and he changed it. In general, her attitude toward him was unexpectedly altruistic. "When I think about him, I remember my past," she said. "I don't want to discourage his dream."

On Huntley, the neighbors can only hope that Kiwiberry and the new Pinkberrys siphon off from the steady stream of yogurt fans on their block. It's not that they want Hwang to fail, but they'll be happier if the original Pinkberry becomes, in the months ahead, a little less successful.

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