Making a small stand for DIY (and dessert)
The Aspen Times
A construction project has been going on for several months on the northwest corner of the Hyman Ave. mall. When the storefront is completed, probably in the fall, it will house Officine Panerai, a high-end watch company. Officine Panerai replaces a small market that sold local and organic food. Still, the project seems to be drawing little attention, positive or negative — just another pricey shop in an elegant building — for Aspen, an everyday occurrence.
Directly across the mall is another new shop, recently opened. The construction was infinitely more modest. Made of wood, it was built in a rented space in Willits and then transported to Aspen. The project took less than two weeks; the crew comprised the two shop owners and one of their dads. The finished space occupies all of 50 square feet. And the owners, who opened for business July 1, report that customers and passers-by can’t stop talking about their operation.
“People are stoked,” Rom Hirss, who owns and operates Red Fox Frozen Yogurt with his Snowmass Village roommate Noah Annes. “People say they’ve been waiting for Aspen to get a yogurt shop for so long. They say, ‘Hey, I had that idea first.’”
Frozen-yogurt shops in the mold of Red Fox — self-serve, pay by the ounce — have been an explosive business over the past few years. Annes points to the healthful aspect: frozen yogurt, like regular yogurt, contains probiotics and less fat than ice cream. Hirss says it’s the interactive component: Customers can blend flavors as they wish and make their serving as big or small as they like. (Personally, I’m pretty sure it’s all about the toppings: You want a dollop of yogurt swimming in caramel sauce and piled high with Reese’s Pieces and gummy bears — go for it.)
But the enthusiastic reception seems to have to do with more than the product itself. As a small-scale, relatively unique, thoroughly do-it-yourself operation that caters to the masses, Red Fox is an anomaly in Aspen, and it serves up something that many Aspenites yearn for most: the taste of old Aspen.
“It seems more a traditional, or natural way of coming into business — hard work rather than millions of dollars,” said Hirss, whose mother runs a small bakery and whose father ran a ski school in Washington state. “A guy stopped by and said, ‘I want to see fewer watch shops and more of this.’”
Hirss and Annes are ski and snowboard instructors in Snowmass, and both have an entrepreneurial streak. The two have launched a few businesses together: Aspen Outdoor Experience, which brought families on overnight camping trips; and Smalltownme, a Groupon-like site that didn’t catch on. Annes, 29, owns HaskelWear, an apparel company geared toward the summer camp in Minnesota he attended as a kid; he also waited tables at Elevation. Hirss, 30, used to have a local construction company with his brother.
Seeing the frozen-yogurt boom, the two began looking for a traditional retail space last winter. They came close to signing a lease for a space below New York Pizza but decided that the rent was too high and put the frozen-yogurt idea on ice. Then their broker called, offering an unusual spot: the tiny space on the mall, between T-shirt stores, big enough only for a stand. The spot previously was occupied by the outdoor-activity company Blazing Adventures, which passed on renewing its lease. The space is operational only from June through September, the height of the frozen-yogurt season, and Hirss and Annes signed a four-year deal.
The two felt community support right away. Babs Menendez, owner of the Big Wrap, an example of a successful, small Aspen business, stepped in as a mentor. Even the city departments they dealt with, including Community Development, Environmental Health and Planning and Zoning, seemed to be on their side. “People say, ‘How much trouble was it dealing with them?’” Annes said. “No trouble at all. Surprisingly easy with the city. This is what Aspen needs — two young guys, entrepreneurs, trying something cool, something new.”
The biggest hitch, as it turned out, was buying yogurt dispensers. With summer looming, all the yogurt machine manufacturers they called were sold out. Finally they found a distributor in Spokane and had him ship a machine directly from the factory to Aspen.
“We took it on our own shoulders and made it happen,” Hirss said.
The shack, which Hirss designed, can be folded up for storage at the end of the season. There was similar care put into the product. The two knew they wanted to serve a Colorado-made yogurt, and when they found Yokibliss, made by Boulder Creamery, they had their yogurt — made with milk from local cows, no antibiotics, hormones or preservatives.
Frozen-yogurt fans accustomed to a wide assortment of flavors have less to choose from at Red Fox (whose name comes from the fun-loving fox of Native American lore). There is room for just four flavors (they opened with cookies and cream, fat-free chocolate, organic vanilla and raspberry-lemonade sorbetto). For toppings, they leaned toward the more healthful options, including fresh strawberries and peaches and organic granola, but the more indulgent can load up on cookie-dough bites and gummy bears, which Hirss and Annes are finding to be “outrageously popular.”
The two report strong business. One customer, a bartender at Campo di Fiore, comes every day and brings orders back to his co-workers.
Hirss and Annes like their funky little spot so much that they aren’t sure if they will continue the search for a year-round space. In their corner stand, there’s room for only one worker at a time, so during busy evening hours, one of them wanders outside the stand talking to potential customers — a good system for two outgoing, engaging personalities.
“We really like this model,” Hirss said. “The overhead, and investment is small. There’s no offseason.”
In a country filled with Pinkberry, Orange Leaf and Red Mango franchises selling self-serve frozen yogurt, Red Fox isn’t entirely unique. But in a town like Aspen, a startup food stand that sells its product for 68 cents an ounce, where the guys who own the business also built the shack and serve the customers, is fairly singular.
“Some people haven’t seen the self-serve thing,” Annes said. “This is our version of that — small version for a small town.”
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