This interview is part of Age-friendly NYC’s new business profile series.
Jean Alerte, Owner of Brooklyn Swirl, first realized his dream of becoming an entrepreneur after he moved from Brooklyn to Long Island with his family as a child. Noticing that many of his friends’ parents owned businesses which they would one day run, he decided he also wanted to own a business and leave a lasting legacy for his children. This dream came true when Jean first became an entrepreneur at the age of 18. Although Brooklyn Swirl is not his first venture, it is especially dear to Jean as his first and only brick and mortar business.
Brooklyn Swirl began after Jean noticed that there was a real need for healthy dessert options in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Wanting to bring something new and different to the neighborhood, Jean opened Brooklyn Swirl, the first and only frozen yogurt (froyo) shop in Bed-Stuy. Although they have been in business for only two years, Brooklyn Swirl has become a community staple and a symbol of healthy eating. Their menu includes froyo, fresh fruit smoothies, crepes and hot soups in the winter season.
Why did you become an age-friendly business?
I started this business because I wanted to give something back to the community that helped me become an entrepreneur. From day one I knew that older adults built this community and fought for the opportunity for people like me to become entrepreneurs and property owners. If it wasn’t for them I could have never achieved the success as an entrepreneur that I have today. I also realize that many older adults have a fixed income, and with all of the changes going on in this neighborhood, many of them are getting priced out and aren’t able to enjoy the new restaurants and businesses opening up in the area. So from the start of my business, I made sure to think about older adults and making my store a place where they can gather and enjoy an affordable healthy treat.
What are some of your unique age-friendly services?
The two big things that are age-friendly about Brooklyn Swirl is our products and our discounts. We make sure we offer healthy yet delicious treats that can accommodate vegans, those who are lactose intolerant and those who suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes – which is a very big concern in our neighborhood, especially among older adults. For these reasons, I developed our product to have less sugar than traditional ice cream. In fact the vanilla flavored froyo contains the least amount of sugar and happens to also be the most popular flavor with our older customers. I also prioritize having fresh fruit toppings and only stocking other healthy treats and drinks. I especially didn’t want to stock soda as you can get a soda anywhere in the neighborhood – we want to offer a healthy tasty alternative. Our products are especially important for older adults who may have health issues and normally can’t enjoy sweet treats. Accessibility is also very important for us and we made sure that we have a ramp and handicapped accessible bathroom so that everyone can enjoy our store. The other unique thing about our business is the size and frequency of our discounts and loyalty program. After six purchases, anyone at Brooklyn Swirl can enjoy a free yogurt, rewarding our loyal customers. Also, unlike many other businesses, we offer older adults 50% off every single day during specific hours. We aren’t doing this to make money, in fact it cuts into our profits. But for us it isn’t about the money in this case. I wanted to do this as a thank you to all of the older adults who built this community and gave me the opportunity to get to where I am today. If I can help them out a little and make it so that they can come to the store and get an affordable healthy snack and even be able to buy one for a friend or grandkid without breaking the bank, then it is worth it.
Would you recommend becoming age-friendly to other businesses?
I would absolutely recommend it and I’d tell other business owners that they should become age-friendly because it’s just the right thing to do. Also being age-friendly has really helped my brand as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Having this brick and mortar location allows me to show my customers other things I’m doing in my career, such as the book I published. All the proceeds from every book go toward a scholarship fund I set up to send local kids to college. Older adults are the center of the community and many know reporters, teachers and community members. They have really helped me spread the word about my scholarship program and connect me to new opportunities. So even though only about 10% of my business at Brooklyn Swirl comes from older customers, 50% of my brand is being built up because of them. I may give discounts on froyo to older customers but I have gotten so much more in return. They have made a huge impact on my career as an entrepreneur because they are some of my biggest supporters. So I would tell other business owners to stop looking only at their bottom line, because from the marketing perspective this initiative makes perfect sense. It has made a huge impact because this is all about the indirect benefits. I would also point out to them that one day they too will get old so they have to think now about the cycle of giving back. It is amazing how what you give now comes back to you. I think Mark Twain summed it up best when he said:
“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”