Menchie’s: CEO of yogurt chain reveals secret to his success
Perhaps it was a Michael J. Fox movie about a plucky corporate mailroom worker in New York City who works his way to the top that put Amit Kleinberger on the road to business-empire success.
Or maybe it was the time he spent honing his leadership skills in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Then again, it could have been Kleinberger’s parents, whose insistence on living by Jewish values and doing good in the world planted in him the seeds of an effective entrepreneur.
Whatever it was that set Kleinberger on his career path, today he has undoubtedly reached a pinnacle. At just 36 years old, he’s the CEO of Encino-based Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt, which is among the world’s largest self-serve frozen yogurt franchises, with more than 530 locations around the globe.
His résumé includes building three other companies from scratch: a chain of cellphone accessory stories, a glass distributor and an assisted living facility for seniors. Most recently, Kleinberger embarked on another new business: He’s launching a chain of dine-in pizza restaurants called MidiCi Neapolitan Pizza.
“Ever since I can remember, I found business fascinating,” Kleinberger said in a recent phone interview. “When I was a kid, I remember that even watching movies, business movies, to me were just fascinating. The whole idea of commerce, I just found it very intriguing.”
Born in Jerusalem, Kleinberger spent his childhood in Israel and South Africa, where his parents moved for a time because of job obligations. His father is an engineer, and his mother worked as a teacher and later as principal at a large high school. Kleinberger said he grew up in the Reform Jewish tradition, but also learned from his parents to respect people of all backgrounds and faiths.
Kleinberger was drawn to the world of business early on. At about age 10, he remembers getting hold of a copy of the 1987 movie “The Secret of My Success.” In it, a young college graduate played by Michael J. Fox works his way up from the mailroom to head of a company. Kleinberger watched the movie endlessly.
After working various part-time jobs through his teenage years, Kleinberger entered the military. He served three years in the IDF, and graduated from commander and sergeant schools. Along the way, he said he learned invaluable lessons that later would help him in the business world.
“The military is probably the most instrumental piece in my leadership. There’s three things that I’ve taken from the military: leading by example, appreciating people and humanity, and the discipline and ethic of hard work and perseverance,” he said. “You take those values — things that are well, well instilled in the military — those are probably the things I use the most.”
In his early 20s, Kleinberger moved to the United States to pursue what he thought was his dream — becoming a defense attorney. He enrolled in Santa Monica College, but quickly dropped out after he realized his passion lay elsewhere. With what little money he’d saved, he opened his first business, a cellular equipment store. He built that business into a chain of 26 locations.
After selling the stores, Kleinberger started and later sold two other businesses. First came a window products distribution company, then an assisted living facility, for which he said he obtained an administrator license from the California Department of Social Services.
Then, in 2008, he met Menchie’s co-founders Danna and Adam Caldwell through mutual friends. At the time, the Caldwells had just one store, located in Valley Village. But Kleinberger saw potential in the couple’s emphasis on providing not just good frozen yogurt, but an uplifting and fun experience for the customer. He agreed to form a business partnership with the couple, and the rest is history. (Danna Caldwell remains as president of Menchie’s and her husband is COO.)
Kleinberger, who lives in Encino with his wife, Carrie, an Agoura High School teacher, said Menchie’s is successful because it combines quality frozen yogurt (made from hormone-free milk) with good service and ambience, creating a total experience for the customer. The brand, much like Disney, is instantly recognizable when you encounter it, he said.
Kleinberger also credits the franchisees and the people who work at Menchie’s for the company’s success. He said he learned to pay more attention to what happens on the frontlines of the business after he starred in two episodes of the television series “Undercover Boss.” On the CBS show, he worked in stores without letting on that he was the chief executive officer, serving yogurt, and cleaning restrooms and machines. He even spent a day at a dairy farm assisting with the birth of a calf.
“It was probably one of the most interesting experiences of my life,” Kleinberger said with a chuckle. “I didn’t see that coming. I was raised in an urban environment, not so much a farming environment. Seeing a calf pop out is probably something I won’t forget.”
Looking back on his wildly varied business career, Kleinberger divides its trajectory into two phases. During the first phase, his focus was trying out new business ideas, which often came to him through coincidence, he said. Later, with the senior care facility and now Menchie’s and MidiCi — which currently has one location in Sherman Oaks, with plans for more nationwide — he sought something more meaningful: to honor and celebrate people.
The goal at Menchie’s, with its swirly-headed mascot, multiple flavors and wide variety of toppings, is to make people smile, he explained. MidiCi’s is centered around the idea of bringing together friends through dining. (Its name means “you tell me” in Italian and refers to the customized approach to pizza and the restaurant’s social environment.)
“I’ve decided to dedicate my focus to only businesses that have a purpose, a focus on making the world better. I’m not interested in owning businesses for the sake of just owning them,” he said. “The financial piece of it is not where I see the value in business. My belief is that, when you do great things, the financial thing comes along, but when you focus only on the financial … it’s not nearly as fulfilling.”