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Culture Warrior

Yul Kwon won Survivor. Next: The fro-yo wars.

In 2006, Yul Kwon, a 34-year-old attorney and Google management consultant, won Survivor: Cook Islands, picking up a $1 million payday and a spot on People magazine's sexiest men list. He also dropped 20 pounds, but that starvation-honed physique didn't last long. Back on the mainland, Kwon developed a mammoth appetite and routinely devoured the bulk junk-food aisles at Costco. Forty pounds into his binge, he decided enough was enough.

"I wanted to find something healthy that wouldn't kill my body," he says. What he discovered was Red Mango, a stylish chain of premium frozen yogurt shops and one of the new wave of franchises serving up this all-natural, non-fat, live-culture "treat"--and inspiring long lines, intense rivalries and endless knockoffs across the U.S. Although several fro-yo shops make the claim of being first, it appears that Red Mango originated the concept in South Korea in 2002, then opened its first U.S. outpost in Westwood, Calif., five years later. More than 60 locations have followed, with plans for dozens more in the coming year.

As Pinkberry, Yogen Fruz and regional chains continue to battle for market share in the decade's great frozen yogurt war, Kwon and his partners have opened five Red Mangos in the San Francisco Bay Area, betting that his favorite chain and its loyal following will be fro-yo's ultimate survivor.

How did you get such a fro-yo fetish?
The thing is, Survivor is pretty authentic. They really starve you out on the island, and you're literally thinking about food all the time. After I got back and gained weight, a friend introduced me to Red Mango, and I loved it--it tasted fresh, and it was really healthy.

Why did you want your own shop?
I had a passion for the product. I'm into health and my wife works at a nonprofit dealing with childhood obesity. I met the CEO through a friend. We hit it off, and he was looking to franchise in the Bay Area.

When did you open the first store?
We opened Palo Alto in June 2008, but it wasn't the first one we tried to open. We had signed a 10-year lease and started construction in San Francisco, but ran afoul of zoning regulations. It became a political issue--a lot of neighborhoods are hostile to chains. It took a long time, and our license wasn't approved. It impressed on me the challenges faced by first-time business owners. I'm an attorney with a good education. I played by the rules, but I didn't understand the unwritten social rules. Starting a business isn't just about hard work, you have to learn to navigate the local environment.

What are your challenges now?
I had two partners in the first store, and based on our success, we got investors to launch more stores. But we opened just in time for the worst retail environment in 20 years. So we hired a more professional management team. The best thing an entrepreneur can realize is when the situation calls for people with a broader skill set. Owners get emotionally invested in their businesses and have difficulty stepping away. I can recognize when a tipping point has occurred and when other people are needed to take the business to the next level.

Do you still eat Red Mango every day?
It's funny--I haven't gotten sick of it. My usual is original yogurt with blueberries, mangoes and strawberries. When I feel like eating on the edge, I like tangomonium-green tea swirl with Ghirardelli chocolate and mochi. I'm lactose intolerant, and it's one of the few dairy products I can eat without my wife kicking me out of the bedroom.

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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This article was originally published in the November 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Culture Warrior.

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