Yul Kwon Comes Home
The ex-Survivor winner and Walnut Creek native talks about opening up a Red Mango yogurt shop in his hometown.
Photo by Kenny Kim/www.kennykim.com
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Yul Kwon is a busy guy. Not content to rest on his laurels (or his $1 million) after becoming the first Asian-American to win the reality show Survivor in 2006, the East Bay-native has worked as a host for the Discovery Channel, served as a special correspondent for CNN, speaks regularly as a guest lecturer for the FBI, and hit the campaign trail on behalf of now-President Barack Obama. This is in addition to lending his celebrity name and face (he's been included in People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive issue) to a range of worthy nonprofit causes, including serving as the national spokesperson for the Asian American Donor Program.
Recently married and living in San Mateo, Kwon has returned to his hometown as the franchisee owner of a new Red Mango yogurt store in Walnut Creek, which opened this Father's Day weekend—the Walnut Creek store is the sixth Red Mango (a South Korea-based company with a growing, cult following) that Kwon has opened in Northen California. We caught up with the Northgate High grad to discuss Survivor, yogurt, and life in the East Bay.
Diablo: Congratulations on the new Red Mango: Is it nice for you to be opening up a business in your hometown?
Yul Kwon: Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Walnut Creek/Concord area, went to Foothill and Northgate High before I went to college. My whole family still lives here—my parents are in Concord, my brother lives in Danville—so I still have a lot of close friends and connections to the East Bay, so I’m really excited. When the whole Red Mango thing started, I was really looking to come back to my hometown. When I was a kid, I used to go hang out in downtown Walnut Creek, and there’s something about having a store in the community. You just get to meet a lot of people, you become part of the community, and there are opportunities to give back, so I’ve been looking for the right opportunity and finally something came up and we jumped on it.
I just got married a couple months ago, and we’ll be moving at some point so we’ve been trying to think about where we want to be, and I’d love to come back to the East Bay. At some point we’ll want to have a family, and of course it’ll be nice to be close to my family. I’ve had the opportunity to live in a lot of different places but I always felt that the East Bay was my home—it’s a great community, a great place to grow up. The only thing is it’s hot—but that makes it a great place for yogurt I guess.
Is there any significance to opening up on Father’s Day?
I’ve been very lucky with my opportunities after Survivor, and what I really feel is that the real heroes aren’t the ones who are out in the spotlight, the real heroes are the ones who are there every day, as part of your life, working to provide for you and your family. My father’s a perfect example. My dad came to this country without a lot, he worked really hard to provide a life for me and my brother and to provide educational opportunities for us. We were never well off financially, but we were always stable, and I always knew that my parents loved us. More than any other advantages in life, I think it was having those parents that loved me and cared about me and looked out for me and really having a father figure that played a pivotal role in who I became.
When I went on Survivor, my dad really didn’t approve. He said ‘Why would you want to embarrass the whole family on national television by being on a stupid reality show,' but I felt it was something I wanted to prove to do to myself that I could, and also to be a more positive role model. Then, after the show ended, my dad did something he’d never done before which was come up to me and apologize. I was really taken aback, but he said that he was sorry that he had doubted me, because seeing me on television had given him the opportunity to see what kind of person, what kind of man, I had grown up to be, and he was really proud of that. And that just really meant a lot to me, and I felt that it wasn’t so much anything that I did, but it’s him and million of other fathers like him that really deserve all the credit.
So how did you get into Red Mango?
I was always kind of a health nut, but after Survivor I kind of went crazy. I lost about 25 pounds on the show, and when I came back I was just going to Costco every day and eating a lot of free samples. I was just killing my body with all this junk food and I gained like 40 pounds. And then I developed an eating disorder where it’s almost like binge-eating and crashing, where I gained a ton of weight and then I knew I was going to be on TV again so I'd diet and dehydrate myself, and it just goes back and forth. That’s how I got into the whole Red Mango thing, I just decided that I really wanted to find something healthy to eat. So I found this Red Mango in LA and I really loved it. I thought it was something that I liked, but also thought it was something that a lot of kids and younger people would like. My wife works at a non-profit that focuses on childhood obesity and its one of the real problems with our society and I just felt like there was an absence of healthy, nutritious, but yummy, food out there—especially for kids.
It’s literally the healthiest yogurt out there. I didn’t have any pre-existing desire to go into food or retail but I just loved the product. It’s fat-free, it’s low calorie, it’s gluten-free, it’s kosher, it’s been certified by the National Yogurt Association as having live and active cultures (probiotics). Most frozen yogurt is made out of powder so it’s not really that different from ice cream, it just has a lot of sugar. The thing about making it out of powder is that it kills all the healthy bacteria, the probiotics. Our yogurt is shipped from the dairy farm and its flash-frozen so it preserves the probiotics. It was the first yogurt that was certified with the live and active culture seal which means that it actually is real yogurt—and it takes good.
So you haven’t gone back to practicing law since Survivor?
Oh God no! A little law by virtue of my business, but to the extent that I can, I try to avoid any legal briefs or power point slides.
It seems like you enjoy what you’re doing now.
Sure, I get to make yogurt and eat it, so it’s not a bad deal.
What are some of the causes you’ve been involved with?
I work with a lot of bone marrow organizations, the Asian American donor program, the National Marrow Donor Program, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. After the show, one of my co-finalist who was a domestic violence attorney, and I started a non-profit called Becky’s Fund together which tries to support women, especially in immigrant communities, who are victims of domestic violence. I did some work with CNN, co-hosted a show on Discovery Channel. I was also very active politically, I thought up until this last election, the percentage of younger voters was very low, so the message I tried to get out was participation, whether in your communities or in politics.For more with Yul Kwon, click to page 2. Red Mango, 1159 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 280-6667, redmangousa.com.