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Friday, July 8, 2011

FroYo is hot in Lexington and Orange Leaf
is among hottest, propelled by Calipari touch

By Elizabeth Troutman

 

Dodging a surge of kids inside the Palomar Centre store on a hot afternoon, the three guys who introduced Lexington to Orange Leaf grab paper cups and gravitate toward the wall of dispensers.

 

Jeremiah Sizemore tugs the handle of a machine for a modest dollop of cookies and cream. But he admits that his go-to flavor is Tart sprinkled with strawberries and Fruitie Pebbles cereal from the toppings bar.

 

His business partner Bryce Anderson goes for a refreshing combo of Peach and Pomegranate topped with granola and mixed fruit. Although he likes the Coffee and Peanut Butter flavors, he advises changing up flavors every once in a while.

 

The third owner of the franchise, Evan Morris, is chiseling away at a swirl of Strawberry and Cheesecake yogurt overflowing with a medley of strawberries, Captain Crunch cereal, Oreos and pieces of Snickers bars. This version of yogurt jambalaya isn’t uncommon, with toppings choices as tempting as Swedish Fish and Pop Tarts. Morris notes that the heaviest bowl that ever crossed an Orange Leaf scale weighed 37 ounces.

 

After opening four Orange Leaf stores in Lexington over the past nine months, the high school friends surprisingly haven’t tired of their own “fro yo” – and judging from the constant buzz in their frozen yogurt joints neither have their customers.

 

The three Lexington Christian Academy High School graduates have achieved a long-time dream of starting a business together – and feel they have the makings of a formula for success. It’s a formula that includes not just a great product – but also at least one influential investor and advocate in UK basketball Coach John Calipari who loves the stuff – and a business that promotes healthy lifestyles and charitable causes.

 

“When I first connected with the Orange Leaf group, I immediately saw a championship organization with people who are committed to a healthy lifestyle, charitable causes and the best frozen yogurt I’ve ever tasted,” Calipari said.

 

The coach is a frequent customer at the Romany Road store.

 

The team he joined met their freshman year at LCA and solidified their friendship through high school. After graduation, Morris studied electrical engineering at the University of Kentucky, Anderson went to a college in Pennsylvania, eventually acquiring his masters in business administration in Turkey, and Sizemore studied international relations at Samford University in Alabama.

 

Their friendships survived time and distance. During breaks home from college they’d gather for late-night meetings where the topic turned to investing in a business together.

 

And life continued. They graduated from college and pursued corporate careers. Meanwhile, Sizemore was investigating the frozen yogurt concept, which he learned about in college. He liked the business model and the product. After a couple trips to California to learn more about the prospect of bringing a franchise to Kentucky, he shared the idea with his friends.

 

When a real estate property caught his eye in the summer of 2010, Sizemore got serious about opening the business. Coincidentally, both Anderson and Morris were wrapping up projects at their current jobs. It was a defining moment.

 

“The chance to try to get to work together is something a lot of friends talk about,” Sizemore said. “This was an opportunity to give it a shot.”

 

Orange Leaf on Tiverton Way opened Oct. 14, 2010, operated solely by family members during the first week. After pre-opening day radio advertisements and Facebook promotions, the first customer to come through the doors was a mutual friend the guys knew from high school. For two weeks, they worked 15-hour days and remained at the store during all open hours. The guys said the “unknown” of opening a business was scary. But after a few weeks in business, they were able to hire staff members and return to a somewhat “normal life.”

 

“It was almost like a month-long adrenaline rush to go out and do something you’ve talked about for a long time,” Morris said. “We didn’t know if the adrenaline would end.”

 

If it abated, it only picked up again with the decision to open three addition stores in Palomar Centre, Brighton Place and Romany Road.

 

Calipari joined Orange Leaf as an investor before the opening of the new stores. He had gained an affinity for frozen yogurt while growing up in Pittsburgh where his aunt Nonni lived only a couple doors from the Tastee Freeze. Orange Leaf, he says, reminds him of fond childhood memories. In addition to its great taste, Orange Leaf yogurt is a low-fat, low-calorie dessert option. He wants to promote a healthier lifestyle for the Bluegrass.

 

While the Orange Leaf guys are grateful for the support they’ve received from Calipari and others, they said the families who are crazy about Orange Leaf are the most valuable advocates of the business. Morris interacts with many of his customers on Facebook. The guys are astounded at the loyalty of the customers and value the friends they’ve made.

 

“We try to establish a relationship with our customers,” Anderson said. “If they have a great time, they will tell their friends.”

 

Sizemore said the customization and health aspect of the product attracts customers. The yogurt contains only skim milk, provided locally by Southern Belle, and fresh fruit is cut everyday for the toppings bar. Nothing is frozen and natural flavors are used in the ingredients. Morris said the desserts can be as healthy – or not— as the customer chooses.

 

More than anything, the guys are gratified in knowing they’re providing a fun experience for customers — who have become friends.

 

“I think we were still young and naïve enough to think we’d be super successful and it would work out perfectly,” Sizemore said. “But it’s funny to look back and see that it has so far. . .We’ve worked hard and we’ve cared. It’s a huge blessing to see it work out – to see people enjoy it.”

 

Photos by Ben Cannon.

 

Slider image: Orange Leaf founders (From left to right) Evan Morris, Bryce Anderson and Jeremiah Sizemore sit in front of the Orange Leaf location off Nicholasville Road.

 

Top image: A customer chooses toppings for his frozen yogurt at Orange Leaf.

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