The American Dream: TCBY business owner follows his heart in the land of opportunity
It’s a beautiful Thursday afternoon in late September and sitting at an oval table near The Coffee Spot is a slight man in his mid 60’s with silver hair, penetrating dark eyes and a warm, juxtaposing smile.
If you hear him speak, the low tone carries a distinct Persian accent with a quiet intensity that requires one to lean forward to digest his words. “I learn everyday,” he says, “and I’ve learned a lot from the students.”
He may look familiar on the SMC campus but most do not know that this man is Michael Eghbali, the proprietor of TCBY/Starbucks and The Coffee Spot, two highly popular food service kiosks on campus since 1988.
He's a man that has always done things his way. And perhaps it's his natural instinct for experimentation and independence which allows him to relate to the students that he works with and employs. “I never believed that there was any one way to do things and so I never had any difficulty relating to the youngsters.” It might also be a clue into what has has allowed him to navigate the choppy waters that come along with a life that has carried him across oceans.
"They came in and took everything and I went down almost to zero," he says when describing his last years in his native Iran, which he was forced to leave during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which resulted in the Iranian Oil Embargo and ushered in the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic state.
Like many successful entrepreneurs he started fresh and began lessons in business starting at a young age; joining the workforce at age sixteen, working in a variety of jobs such as accounting, collections, and sales before striking out on his own at the ripe old age of 21.
He also picked up a degree in Sociology, the study of the development, structure, and functions of human society, which he claims to never have used but may have subtly helped him in his enterprises.
One of his many businesses, Dairy World, was a food processing business which specialized in dairy which produced on average twenty tons of dairy products at the height of its existence. He then emigrated to Germany after the chaos of the revolution through the help of one of his exporting clients where he resumed his dairy business while branching off into several other directions including starting a construction business, industrial manufacturing business, and starting an operation in Greece.
Eventually, curiosity got the best of him because after the death of his mother and father, he chose to try his hand in the U.S. with the help from some extended family and eventually taking up residence in Santa Monica. "I was looking for an opportunity and I began studying the yogurt business," he says.
At the time, the mid 80’s, the first frozen yogurt craze was sweeping through Southern California. He found out that SMC was accepting bids for their first food service vendor and put in a bid to start a frozen yogurt business eventually winning out over established frozen yogurt companies such as Heidi’s and Penguins, because he was the only bidder that was willing to invest his own money into the project, thus creating “Icicle Frozen Yogurt.”
Today the company still serves frozen yogurt, but it’s just one of many products.
“From the beginning it’s always been about two things, quality and price.” He says and equates that to being the difference between commercial versus custom or giving the analogy, “It’s like the difference between drinking a Budweiser or versus enjoying a craft beer.”
Today, Eghbali works with several marquee brands including Starbucks, TCBY frozen yogurt, Boar’s Head deli products, and Evolution juices. He also has a long standing relationship with a local french bakery that supplies all of the muffins and pastries behind the sample case. He remains committed to these practices even as it becomes increasingly difficult to fulfill them. “I charge $6 for a Boar's Head sandwich. That’s great meat. Go into Ralph’s and they charge you $8 for the same thing, and they probably pay 20% less than I do.” Yet even with these difficulties Eghbali strives to serve products with convenience and economy to the customer.
“We’re coming to the end of it,” he says referring to the current pricing structure, “I had one vendor implement three increases in the last year. The problem that we have today is that everybody is always wanting more and more trying to extract every last dollar. "The difference with me is that I run my business with my heart.” Eghbali says.
In fact, Eghbali prides himself on quality customer service. He recalls an incident last week: “There was a woman who returned a Danish. We checked it out and there was something wrong with the dough. I took them all out of the case and returned them to the bakery. The next morning I met with him at his office and that was it.”
Another way he listens to his customers is actually proven in the sandwich displays. He started selling sandwiches because he got a request from a student that wanted him to start offering fresh mozzarella and tomato sandwiches, and the relationship with Evolution juices came about because students were requesting healthier options.
Now, a man in his mid 60’s with two adult children and two grandchildren, Eghbali seems to have some perspective on his life in business.
Although he’s run multiple businesses of various size and scale he chose not to expand into other colleges and universities because it would take away from the time that he’s able to dedicate to SMC. “I believe that in any business you have to be on top of the business all the time,” he says.
It’s the victories of life that are most important to him such as his enjoying his weekends off with friends and family, his business and now guiding others on their own entrepreneurial path.
His eyes gleam as he relays the stories of several young people that have worked for him over the years and the progress that they've made in their lives including the story of a young man that started out as a troubled student with no self confidence who later went on to gain more responsibility where he opened his own restaurant in Colorado. Eager, Eghbali then proceeds to ask if he can go open his restaurant.