Ed Crane for
The National Business Post
August 25, 2021
That’s how the whole thing started. Back around 1986, before convenience store and car wash add ons made gas stations profit centers, Los Angeles area developer Eddie Israel had a brainstorm.
“I bought it knowing the lease was going to run out. My idea was to redevelop the property into a small strip mall. I tore the gas station down and built a strip mall that housed five stores”. The location, at the corner of Olympic and Westwood was highly trafficked in a residential neighborhood.
“The corner was a very good corner, there was traffic going in all four directions, a dense neighborhood, a residential neighborhood.”, laments Israel.
It was a perfect spot, Eddie thought, for a turnkey cash business. He and older brother Vic would pony up the money, and younger brother Larry would put in the sweat equity, researching the operation and handling day to day operations.
Initially it was going to be a burger joint, but the plan changed. “Eddie came to me one day and said he was getting all these calls about people looking for space to open a yogurt store”, Larry remembers, “so we decided that’s what we’d do. We will do soft serve yogurt. Simple.”
But Israel didn’t become a powerhouse in L.A. development by doing simple. He hired a hot local architect to design the shop, using bold colors and glass blocks. They named it, The Bigg Chill. The second “G” tacked on to keep Hollywood lawyers away, after the success of the 1983 film of the same name.
Demi Lovato becomes intolerant.
Sound familiar? It was all a buzz last year in pop culture for it’s the same yogurt shop where Demi Lovato became intolerant – not of the lactose – but of the shop’s varied sugar-free offerings which accommodate weight watching customers. She raged on social media that just seeing the diet offerings triggered a flashback to her own eating disorder issues. She later apologized, but the Diva treatment only energized fans of the “fro-yo” purveyor.
But when current owner Diane Dinow and daughter Carrie Russell explained that they had been catering to clientele for some 40 years, Eddie Israel set out to set the record straight. So here it is:
“We opened The Bigg Chill in 1987 and it was an instant hit” Eddie remembers. And even though a cup of their frozen treat went for just $1.40, Larry recalls a high profit margin, with annual sales of close to $300,000. The Bigg Chill did so well in its first year, the brothers opened a second location, but before it could establish a solid cash flow, fire destroyed the small shopping center where it was about to open.
After years of 12-hour days, and what Larry Israel called monotonous work, he switched from “soft serve” to software, leaving The Bigg Chill to work for Microsoft. Eddie and Victor didn’t have the time to manage the shop day to day, employee theft was becoming an issue and in 1991 the decision was made to sell the shop to the current owner, then known as Diane Mendelsohn. Regardless of what she has said, Eddie Israel emphasizes she is the second owner and has operated the shop for 30 years, not nearly 40.
While he does regret that the Bigg Chill couldn’t have stayed in the family, he allows that it has been well managed.
Over the years, the menu was expanded to include a variety of rotating fro-yo flavors, a line of non-dairy treats, diet desserts and glucose free offerings. According to a Dun and Bradstreet report, The Bigg Chill grossed $1.3 million dollars last year.
While a lot has changed, the store’s vivid colors and glass block decor has stood the test of time, and along with the frozen yogurt, has been appreciated by generations. Eddie’s son, Alex, an accomplished artist, loved that look so much, he turned it into sculpture.
“I internalized the design of the shop; the glass brick, the pink and turquoise neon logo and laminate tops. These are all part of my artistic vocabulary”
After all these years he’s still a customer, admitting frozen yogurt gives him a nice warm feeling.
“Eating Frozen Yogurt always brings me back to my youth. It’s my Proustian madeleine—it represents my childhood and my experience growing up in Los Angeles. It made perfect sense to commemorate this time in my life by making a sculpture of frozen yogurt out of marble and styrofoam, which I titled: “The Bigg Chill.” The sculpture is like a prop from my life, my Rosebud.”
Larry Israel says his time running The Bigg Chill was a bridge between careers, and he remembers the time fondly and is delighted it’s still immensely popular. Eddie Israel is wistful, knowing that selling the store was, at the time, a smart business move. In retrospect? Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
Well, The Kansas City Star told a job applicant named Walt Disney he couldn’t draw. The NY Mets traded Nolan Ryan AND Tom Seaver. CBS sold the NY Yankees—now among the most lucrative pro teams– to George Steinbrenner for less than it paid in 1964.
Not every deal works, and Eddie Israel’s made plenty of other good ones since 1991, but he’ll always remember The Bigg Chill as his baby —and “the one that got away.”
Ed Crane is an award-winning broadcaster and freelance writer whose career spans more than four decades including anchoring CBS Radio’s World News Roundup and CBS Special Reports. Today, Ed makes his home outside Sacramento, CA, where he currently resides with his wife Barbara and their Yellow Lab Sandy, enjoying the pleasures and pastimes of the El Dorado Hills – golf and wine tasting.
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