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You might think Neil Hershman is crazy to open up a frozen yogurt shop in Times Square during a pandemic, but that’s just the low end of this 25-year-old’s ambition. Last night, Neil left his newly opened store behind on 7th Avenue to fly to Kathmandu for a much bigger challenge — he’s climbing Everest.
In his early 20s Neil worked in finance, and a sweet tooth led him to 16 Handles near his East Village home. That store was founded in 2008 by Californian Solomon Choi and grew to become a franchise of over 30 premises.
“The market for 16 Handles is people coming back from work or out on a date,” said Neil, who now owns all the downtown Manhattan locations — at Murray Hill, Chelsea, Tribeca and the original East village store.
The business has traditionally been located in communities where locals live, so the new Times Square location is something of a curve ball.
“Times Square was totally off my radar because it was something that I could never have afforded,” said Neil. “Then one day I was picking up freezers from Tonic that closed right across the street, when I got an email from a broker offering space at a closed frozen yogurt shop.”
He walked over 7th Avenue and took a peek through the window. “I realized that I’d been here before when I was in high school. I was out with a friend and we were walking through Times Square and I remember sitting right here. This crazy memory popped in,” he recalled.
When he got to view the space, he realized it was “really well workable” and then managed to work out a deal. “My landlord was very reasonable, given what’s going on right now in the world. The foot traffic is a low percentage of what it would normally be. I know this business is driven by foot traffic — and at the moment we don’t have many locals in this area or commuters or tourists. We were able to work out a deal that allowed me to build the store in the right way, and to be optimistic about a ten-year future,” he said.
Neil has been watching New York coming back — “I see every weekend that it’s getting a little bit busier.”
He explained that as a self-serve frozen yoghurt store they “enforce everyone to put on a pair of gloves before they touch anything. It’s all gloves and masks.”
Neil has great Times Square neighbors on his part of 7th Avenue between W48/49th Street. “I mean, it’s kind of cool this little block that we have here, with our ice cream shop, the souvenir place and the pizza store. And then I’m told there’s a burger shop coming to the corner. It’s a nice little space just up from Times Square where you can actually get a bite to eat,” he said.
And if that wasn’t challenge enough, on Tuesday evening Neil took a flight to Kathmandu. For the next 6-8 weeks he will connect with the office via sat phone as he climbs Everest.
Neil told us: “It’s been part of a 5-year journey. I wanted to do it last year but COVID and opening the new Tribeca story got in the way. I did climb Ama Dablam nearby though, which is 22,349 feet!”
What about taking care of the store? “I have a sat phone. I’ve left pretty much every year for a climb to somewhere — I really don’t take vacation otherwise,” said Neil. “We built a really good tech stack. Everything’s electronic, everything’s super simplified. My entire staff is young. Almost everyone does everything on their phone. We run payroll from our phone and we do the schedules from our phone. I have great managers. I train the heck out of them — and then I think everything’s good to go.
“And the other thing is, it’s the dessert business! If things go south, we just give away free ice cream and everyone’s happy.”
So is there any chance of new flavor ideas returning with him from his travels? It looks doubtful. “There’s no ice cream out there unfortunately, even as cold as it is. And the snow is inedible,” he said.