By Quinn Russell Brown
For The Bellingham Business Journal
BELLINGHAM — With a smile on his face and a satchel over his shoulder, Robert Penney stepped inside Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt on Bakerview Road. He approached a family with two young children and introduced himself.
“I’m the owner,” he said. “Would you like a balloon animal?”
The kids nodded. Penney swung open his bag and pulled out an air pump.
“A butterfly?” he asked. “Or a dog? Or a bunny? Or a sword?”
Meanwhile, his wife, Dayna Penney, made her way to the cash register, where she checked in with employees and eyed the yogurt dispensers.
“He’s the Dorothy and I’m the Wizard,” Dayna Penney said. “He’s the guy out there making the balloon animals and patting everybody up. I’m kind of more behind-the-scenes operations, ordering stuff and making all the pieces fit.”
Founded in 2007, Menchie’s has more than 400 locations from the U.S. to Australia to Japan. As of 2014, Forbes projected the company to earn $188 million in revenue. For the Penneys, though, frozen yogurt is a family business. The couple own two stores in Bellingham and visits them every day, overseeing operations and chatting with customers. Their kids, a peppy pair of elementary-aged girls named Lila and Cleo, help themselves to yogurt, play board games and talk to the staff.
“We hire the employees, we run it on a day-to-day basis,” Robert Penney said. “It’s a hand-in-hand relationship: corporate provides the look and the branding, we provide the grease and the love.”
In 2012, the Penney family was living in Mukilteo. A Menchie’s had opened nearby and Dayna Penney took the kids there for dessert one night. They were back a few nights later. This time, Lila and Cleo held on to the colorful plastic spoons that come with a cup of Menchie’s yogurt. Their parents saw them eating cereal with the spoons the next morning.
“That’s the reason we bought the franchise,” Robert Penney said. “If they had thought of the concept all the way down to the spoons, then it was a good concept.”
The couple had been interested in opening a business — possibly an ice cream shop — but they didn’t know where to start. Neither of them had extensive experience in the restaurant industry.
“It was daunting to figure out how to put that all together,” Robert Penney said. “We had no idea how to do that sort of thing. I don’t know if we ever would’ve gotten an ice cream shop off the ground, just because there would’ve been too steep of a learning curve.”
They had never planned to go the franchise route, but there was something different about Menchie’s: the store seemed to match their personalities.
“We walked into Menchie’s and felt at home there,” Robert Penney said. “Dayna and I approach everything with a smile first and see what happens second. It was like we finally found a concept that realized how important guest care is.”
And there was one other thing.
“Obviously our kids were going nuts for it,” he said.
The Penneys evaluated Seattle for locations but couldn’t find the right fit. The Bellingham market, on the other hand, had yet to be tapped into. They found a great spot on 1070 Lakeway Drive — located near a sports center, an elementary school and a Fred Meyer.
They opened their first store on Lakeway Drive in April 2012. The sweet tooths of Bellingham came out in droves, vaulting the store into the top-10 performing Menchie’s in the country. Riding that success, the Penneys opened their second store on Bakerview Road in Bellingham in 2013 — also by a Fred Meyer.
“Very handy being next to a Fred Meyer,” Robert Penney said. “You can get all the stuff for your store there, and they get 40,000 visitors a week.”
So how exactly can a franchise feel like a family business? The Penneys describe it like this: Menchie’s corporate provides the structure and marketing, and the individual family provides the guest service and management to build a local reputation.
“We adopted the foundation and then brought what we had as a couple, as a family, to that business,” Robert Penney said. “We’re being given a lot of tools, and now all we have to do is refine those tools to make them better.”
The Penneys handle hiring, training, establishing store hours, advertising, customer service and things like donation requests and recycling programs.
“Those are all decisions that any small business owner is going to make,” Robert Penney said.
The couple also have a say in the product. Dayna Penney swaps out yogurt flavors constantly and posts the current lineup on Facebook every day. There’s room for 14 flavors across seven stands, each stand with two dispensers and the option to twist the two flavors together. Chemistry matters. Chocolate and vanilla is a safe bet, but what about banana and marshmallow? Pineapple and pecan?
“I rotate them enough that people are excited to get their favorite flavor on, and also work in new flavors when they come on,” Dayna Penney said.
“That’s part of the fun about being able to make your own mix: you can try new flavors and new toppings, and make a different one every time if you want.”
She also determines whether to buy fruit locally and if that fruit will be hand-dipped in chocolate once it arrives.
Her husband hasn’t always made balloon animals for guests. He brought out the act for the two grand openings but kept it stashed it away the rest of the time. A few months after getting the Bakerview location off the ground, he decided he needed to interact with customers more.
“I hadn’t been into our stores chatting with guests for months,” he said. “I took one look at myself and realized, ‘Hey, you know what? Let me just pick up some balloon animals. I’ll figure out how to make a few more, and I’ll go and make balloon animals for some kids.’”
He estimates he’s made over 3,000 of them so far.Thirty employees work at the two locations. Most of them are college-age or older. Amy Wharton, a recent Western Washington University grad who plans on continuing her education, has been working for the Penneys for four months.
She said she already considers the Penneys the best bosses she’s ever had.
“They’re definitely people you can talk to,” she said. “You’re not afraid of them, but you still have this feeling of respect for them as your boss. So it’s not just being a friend — it’s like a friendly parent.”
For Lila and Cleo, Robert and Dayna Penney’s other kids, the rush of having parents who own a frozen yogurt shop seems to be wearing off.
“They always, always talk about Menchies,” said Lila, 11, about her parents. “All I hear is, ‘There’s a shortage at Bakerview, we need more green apple tart!’”
Her parents have gotten the memo.
“Our New Year’s Resolution this year was to not open another restaurant,” Robert Penney said.