Patch goes behind the counter
with owner Jamie Karson
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – Almost any time of day you’ll find a pack of eager fans lining up, their faces alight with anticipation for the sensation they are about to experience. No, this is no queue at a concert arena where the latest dance diva is performing back-to-back shows, but a seemingly ever-present line for the counter at Pinkberry, downtown Fairfield’s hottest denizen.
Since Day One, which in this case was October 23, 2010, the frozen yogurt and smoothies purveyor has been attracting the masses, which spark to the products’ great taste, high-quality ingredients, signature tang and fresh fruit flavors. Fifty-four-year-old Southport-based owner Jamie Karson witnessed the craze first-hand in California and has been “thinking pink” since. In a recent sit-down in Fairfield Center, Karson shared some background and the path that led him to Pinkdom.
Karson was born in Lawrence, Long Island, to Manhattan boutique owners. Father Jack ran a men’s apparel business called Mr. Guy, on 7th Avenue, for over four decades from the 1950s until he passed in 1996. Mother Rita owned a women’s boutique, called Rita Jamie, at 72nd Street and Lexington Avenue. She, too, ran the business since the 1950s, until her own passing in 1993. Both were very hard working, an ethic of which Karson took close note.
The pair initially met at a U.S.O. dance at the end of WWII in Brooklyn and married, for life, in 1948. Jamie, an only child, came along in 1957. As the couple was fully engaged in their respective shops, a housekeeper tended to Karson for the most part.
“The separation during the day made me independent and gave me time to dream,” he said, adding, “I found it productive to be a dreamer.”
In the evenings, the family usually dined together and often with business company, and almost invariably the table conversation was focused on retail. Reflecting on those interactions, Karson realizes they probably influenced his career path.
After graduating from private school, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was captain of the tennis team and played all four years. “I loved the whole college experience – it was unbelievable,” Karson said.
When it became time to enter the real world, he went to work for his father, at least initially. Their collaboration lasted one year – the elder Karson fired him. “I wanted to learn law, versus business, and do different things,” he said. “I went to New York Law School and then landed, in the early 80s, at Gerschel & Co., one of the earliest private equity / hedgefunds.”
Karson transferred to Shea & Gould, a large law firm that “represented everybody in the New York region.” He was there seven or eight years and, when the company started to have financial trouble, he moved over to Newman Tannenbaum. There, he practiced real estate law and made partner.
In 1986, Karson also married Laura Walker, whom he knew when they were teens and tennis partners. Their first child, Jordan, now 21 and at UConn, arrived in 1990, followed by daughter Kendall, now 18 and headed to UNC, and Robbie, 16, at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.
in the early and mid-90s, as Karson’s parents began ailing, he left law, took over and ran his parents’ businesses for a while, then sold them off.
A friend and client at the time was Steve Madden, head of one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the world. Madden started his company around 1994; Karson joined as a board member, became CEO in 2000 and then chairman in 2001. During Karson’s tenure, and until he left in 2009, he helped build the company from $120 million in annual sales to $650 million annually. During the same period, the market cap exploded from $80 million to $800 million. The company carried no debt and had reserves of between $15 million and $100 million.
“In Steve Madden, you have an incredible magnetic brand,” said Karson. “It evolves and changes with time, and never gets irrelevant.”
Karson left “when it was time to leave”, retaining a relationship with Madden on several levels. He wanted to just take some time off, golf and travel but, then, what driven business executive really puts life in neutral?
While on vacation with his family in California, in Beverly Hills, he noticed lines out the door at a Pinkberry. “The kids loved it and kept going back,” Karson said. Then he asked a banker friend about it and learned it was under new management, which was looking for development partners. “There was nothing like this in Connecticut, and I didn’t see anything to compete with it. I thought the market was perfect. Connecticut is such a ‘clean’ state – physically clean – like Pinkberry’s aesthetic, very beachy.”
Karson came on board as a franchisee, the first in CT, secured the old PizzaWorks space in downtown, renovated over three months and opened with a menu of six frozen yogurt flavors: original, chocolate, pomegranate, salted caramel, watermelon and mango. These flavors are proprietary to Pinkberry and from its own dairy, and are rotated in and out, to keep the menu fresh. All fruit is obtained from a state fruit vendor and cut fresh daily. Local granolas will soon be added to the already extensive array of some 30 toppings.
Pinkberry Fairfield is now one of about 500 store locations across the U.S.
“I like the vibe here, with its great restaurants, climate, uniqueness,” he said. “And Pinkberry is not just about getting frozen dessert – it’s a happening, a meeting place, an experience.”
He added, “The product is superior and customer service is superb. We try to make a connection with each customer. We want you to have a better day just by coming into Pinkberry. My biggest challenge is to keep the lines moving. We study them, the time, and constantly train and retrain. The line actually moves pretty fast. From the front of the store to the counter is about eight minutes.”
Karson, who plans to open a second Connecticut location, on Greenwich Avenue, in October, declared, “I want to be like P.T. Barnum, with a street scene at night and activities throughout the winter.”
You can bet he will keep thinking Pink and helping grow this phenomenal brand.
Pinkberry Fairfield is located at 1512 Post Road, downtown. Phone: 203-292-9364.