Romance and work are 'blend-ins' here

Times Staff Writer

Paula Armour was working at her frozen yogurt shop in 1987 when a man dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts walked in, ordered a blueberry smoothie and left.

Five minutes later, he was back. To her surprise, he asked if she would have dinner with him.

Paula still owns Humphrey Yogart in Sherman Oaks. But now she runs it alongside her husband of 20 years, Jim Sheftel -- the very man who ordered the blueberry smoothie that day.

"He came in for a smoothie and got a wife," Paula, 54, quipped. Although he liked his drink, "he liked me even better."

Just months after they met, Jim joined Paula behind the counter at Humphrey, becoming a co-owner around the same time they became husband and wife. It hasn't always been easy, they admit, as the Sheftels' contrasting personalities -- Jim is free-spirited and easygoing while Paula is cautious and grounded -- sometimes clash.

But over the years, they've "really got it down to a science," Paula said, alternating days in the shop, developing ideas together and sticking to a well-defined division of labor.

"What has made it easy and successful over the years is we complement each other," she said. "He'll see the big picture and I'm more into the details. He'll come up with the great ideas, and I'll execute them."

"Like with any family business, you trust the people you're related to," said Barry Graff, a San Diego-based family business consultant. "When you succeed, there's a special pride in that: 'We've done this together.' There's nothing like that."

Situated in a shopping plaza on Van Nuys Boulevard, Humphrey has developed a loyal following of customers who crowd the little shop with the quirky name for its espresso drinks, panini, salads and frozen yogurt.

Although Humphrey sells traditional ice cream and soft-serve frozen yogurt, its most popular item is its hard-packed nonfat yogurt, which is scooped just like ice cream. Customers choose from four yogurts -- vanilla, chocolate, tart and soy -- and then pick from 45 "blend-ins," including fresh fruit, candy, cookies and nuts, which are swirled into the yogurt in a blending machine.

Prices start at $2.25 and increase depending on size and the number of blend-ins. The Sheftels say they serve about 500 frozen desserts every day.

Humphrey opened in 1984 during the frozen yogurt boom under the ownership of Maria and Raphael Baker, another husband-and-wife team. Two years later, Paula, then a field consultant for McDonald's Corp., bought the shop from the Bakers for $110,000.

When the shop's landlord learned that Paula, then 34, was single, he promised to find her an eligible bachelor. Soon after, Jim appeared at Humphrey on a Friday afternoon -- sent by the landlord, a family friend.

Jim and Paula had their first date the next night. By Monday, she was telling her mother: "I've met the man I'm going to marry."

But Jim lived in Berkeley, where he sold real estate and played the flute in chamber groups. The couple kept up a long-distance relationship, flying back and forth every few weeks. Soon, the long separations began to be a strain.

Finally, Paula issued an ultimatum: "Either move down here or it's over," Jim recalled. So he moved.

At first, he was reluctant to join the business. An Encino native who graduated from UC Berkeley, Jim worried that he'd feel stifled working in the small, 1,100-square-foot yogurt shop in the Valley.

He realized, however, that there was plenty of room for creativity in a small business -- and that Paula was the ideal partner to help turn his ideas into reality.

When Jim wanted to sell prepackaged products such as health bars and pita chips, Paula cleared out some of Humphrey's tables and chairs to make room for a row of shelves. When he wanted to add panini to the shop's offerings, she bought a sandwich press and designed the new menu boards.

The Sheftels also divide shop duties: Jim manages the finances and pays the bills while Paula is in charge of the day-to-day operations, including setting the master schedule and placing orders.

Still, "we have our tug of wars," Jim, 54, said.

"Conflicts do come up," he said. "She's a delegator. It's hard when she tells me what to do. I'm like, 'Do it yourself.' "

Paula countered: "Jim comes up with all these great ideas, but it falls on my lap to execute them."

Occasional disagreements invariably crop up when couples work together, said Baker, who founded Humphrey with her husband, but the key is to leave work in the office at the end of the day.

"Whatever you're not happy with in the business, the challenge then is to find a way to let that go and just deal with, 'What are we going to have for dinner tonight?' " said Baker, who now lives in Portland, Ore. "And not let it totally envelop you."

Ernie Doud, president of Doud Hausner & Associates, a Glendale-based family business consulting group, said it's important to set boundaries, because keeping professional and personal lives separate "is probably impossible."

"The interesting dilemma is that business and family overlap," he said. "If you're in a family business, that overlap needs to be recognized and it needs to be managed, because we're not going to separate family and business completely. And that overlap -- when you manage it well -- is a strength."

Starting in the late 1980s, the Sheftels opened four more Humphrey Yogart shops, including stores in Hollywood and Brentwood.

But when Paula became pregnant with the couple's second child in 1995, they became concerned about balancing the business with their growing family.

So they sold four stores, keeping the original location in Sherman Oaks. Those stores -- as well as a handful of others in Southern California that were franchised through agreements with the Bakers -- have since closed.

Over the last few years, the return of the frozen yogurt fad has spawned the likes of Pinkberry, Yogurberry and Red Mango, with shops cropping up across the region.

But the new competition "really hasn't impacted us at all," said Paula, adding that Humphrey recorded a 10% increase in total revenue in 2007 over the previous year. She declined to say how much the shop sold last year.

A Humphrey faithful since its doors opened 24 years ago, Kenny Gerston, a commercial real estate consultant from Sherman Oaks, said the other shops just couldn't beat his once-a-week helping of Humphrey's hard-packed chocolate yogurt blended with Oreo cookies, peanut butter and almonds.

"I've tried them all and it's OK, but I always come back to Humphrey's," said Gerston, 53. "It is my favorite place. I'm addicted to it, I truly am."

As for the Sheftels, "they're very cute," Gerston said. "They seem to really work well together as husband and wife. It's kind of romantic."

Romantic sometimes, Paula said, but always rewarding.

"If I were trying to run this by myself, it would be overwhelming," she said. "So to have my life partner to help me manage it -- it makes it all worth it."

--

andrea.chang@latimes.com

--

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

All in the family

Tips for working with your spouse:

Try to keep work and marriage as separate as possible; don't let your business relationship get confused with your personal relationship.

Clarify each person's roles and responsibilities.

Share a common vision, but give each other space.

Make big decisions together, but split up the details.

Trust each other.

Communicate.

Source: Times research

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°