Michael Tran, the owner of Yogurt World, recalls the challenges and joy of running a business on campus.
Yogurt World, a self-service frozen yogurt shop located across from the Price Center, became a popular gathering spot for students and a memorable dining site for campus visitors.
We met Michael Tran, the Chinese-Vietnamese owner of Yogurt World, who recalled the brief history of Yogurt World. He faced challenges running a start-up business, setbacks and adjustments under COVID.
The first Yogurt World shop launched at the Convoy district, a commercial and cultural center for Asian and Pacific Islander communities in San Diego. Facing a majority of Asian customers, Yogurt World introduced a series of Asian flavors, including Milk Tea, Taro, and Jasmine Tea, to the existing list of what Michael called “American flavors,” such as Vanilla and Chocolate.
Among all flavors, however, “Plain Tart,” gained notoriety with the customers. Tran and his business partners became the first food vendors who introduced the concept of “Plain Tart” to San Diego.
The rich, slightly-sour flavor soon gained popularity in the Convoy community. In 2008, Yogurt World arrived at the UC San Diego campus.
“So we’ve been here a long time. We’ve been here, actually, when this student service center was built,” Tran told The UCSD Guardian. “That was the same time that the expansion of the Price Center was finished.”
Tran observed that UCSD has a large Asian and Asian-American student community and that many students dine at or purchase food from the Convoy district, which suggested a potential customer base. Nevertheless, he did not know what to expect when he began to operate the on-campus store in 2012. With no previous experience, it was hard to predict campus sales.
“On campus, the business is actually different,” Tran said. “When we were operating on Convoy, we knew what the business was like. The amount of business every day, every month, throughout the year.”
The challenges arise from the uncertainty of business in a campus environment. Facing a new customer group, the sales patterns of Yogurt World on campus surprised Tran, who has had years of experience working in the food and beverage industry outside the campus.
“The university would tell us we have a certain number of students on campus,” Tran said. “No one realized that after the quarter was over, the business would be pretty much dead. On the weekend, the business is slow. And in summer, it’s busy outside, but summer here is slower. But none of us realized that because we don’t have that experience.”
Upon their arrival to campus, independent food vendors like Yogurt World adjusted to the environment and relearned the business.
With freshmen arriving on campus, the sales of Yogurt World during Fall quarters usually reaches a peak, according to Tran. Another boosting factor for the sales is the warm weather. Spring features the second-best sales throughout the years, partly due to the warm weather.
While it is also warm during summer, business is “calmer,” according to Tran, since fewer students continue to stay on campus for the summer courses.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest challenge for operation on campus was labor. Throughout the years on campus, all Yogurt World employees have been students, with working hours ranging from six to twelve.
Therefore, the schedules of students during Final exams and the absence of student employees on campus during the summer are important factors to take into consideration.
“But usually during summertime, they don’t need hours or have to be here on campus,” Tran said. “At that time, the business slows down. So it kinda worked out in a way that we are able to balance that.”
On top of the staffing situation, COVID-19 posed more challenges for Yogurt World in 2020. Since only a few students continued to stay on campus, Michael shut down the shop from March to September.
To help independent food vendors like Yogurt World to survive through the pandemic, the university responded through a temporary change in the rent policy.
“The Price Center said, if you choose to open, we’ll reduce the rent really low. If [you] didn’t open, you don’t have to pay any rent.” Tran said.
Normally, the Price Center charges the food vendors minimum rent combined with a percentage of the sales. After the pandemic started, it suspended the minimum rent for the food vendors in the first month.
In January this year, the university implemented the same policy to assist vendors under the Omicron variant surge. The U.S. government also helped out the small businesses in the country like Yogurt World to transition through the grants, as long as they were qualified. Tran admitted that without the assistance of the university and the government, “it would be extremely tough.”
Tran described the six-month shutdown period as stressful, but he stayed positive about the business in the grand picture.
“There’s nothing I could do. I shouldn’t worry too much. Maybe use this downtime to do stuff that I love to do. I tried to look at it as, OK, this is my rest period. Just to make the best of the time that I have. So, I mean, I did a lot of hiking,” Tran said.
Right after the sixth-month shutdown, Yogurt World resumed business in September 2020 with an alteration from self-service to waiter-service mode. In other words, Tran and the employees took the responsibility to serve yogurt, provide samples, and add toppings for each customer. The aim was to minimize the contact with the facilities.
“That was fun. That was challenging too. That was crazy when we got busy,” Michael said. “I feel like customers feel more connected to Yogurt World for some reason. The fact that we serve them was a very intimate experience. Customers really appreciate our service. Maybe they see us working so hard to get them the product. And our ratings got higher.”
Although the new service model was less efficient, Tran recalled the stronger bond with customers as “a silver lining” behind the cloud.
COVID affected the income flows but not the growth of Yogurt World. After the quarantine, the business at Yogurt World rebounded with sales in September and October 2021. The sales figures were higher than pre-covid figures.
“Being on campus is really special,” Tran said. “Number one, the energy is really nice. Because of all the students on campus, [there is a] very fresh and young and upbeat energy, and also, this is the one place that I notice I am able to meet a lot of visitors from other states, other cities, and the world. And that’s fun. That’s what I enjoy a lot. Let’s say an outside community, the people you meet, eventually, are the people who live there. Here, you’ve got to see people all over the world.”
Yogurt World and its on-campus nature serve as a safe space for customers to open up at the register and build trust with the staff.
Yogurt World frequently interacts with student organizations. To cooperate, the shop makes it easy for students to fundraise.
“We’ll give you one day to do it, from opening to closing. You make the flier, promote the fundraiser, and whatever you bring in, what we do too, we give 10 percent off to customers bringing in the flyers. And after that, we donate 20 percent off to the organization.” Tran said.
According to Casey Tran, a first-year mechanical engineering student, who is the event planner for Other People Literary Magazine, Yogurt World makes it easier to sign up and is more generous in donations compared to other stores. In fact, the reservation for April is nearly full and it even continues to May, two months ahead of the scheduled events.
The team at Yogurt World plans to continue to develop new recipes for the yogurt, with a focus on the Matcha flavor. At the same time, it will maintain its social media presence starting from this Spring quarter with the help of a student group.
Compared to an outside store, Michael prefers to operate a store on campus for now.
“The campus environment is the most suitable to my personality, open and friendly and enjoying [meeting new] people.” He describes Yogurt World as a home. “Sometimes, especially with the visitors, they really love the yogurt. Many times the [customers’] feedback we [got] [was] like, ‘wow, this is just a fun visit to UCSD. You guys make it even more special.’ And once in a while we have a kid who would say, ‘Now, I’m gonna come here because of your yogurt shop.’”
Image courtesy of orentodoros of Pixabay.