“Frozen Yogurt Shops: The Battle for First Place” for Beacon Media Newspapers

December 2007

Becoming as common as Starbucks and even getting funding from the mega-chain, frozen yogurt shops seem to be popping up everywhere and local cities have gotten into the act.

But these are not the plain interior, vanilla-or-chocolate fro-yo places of the 80s and 90s. Frozen yogurt has been elevated to include alternative “healthy” flavors and sometimes even exclude chocolate, while the atmosphere of the shop itself has morphed into a hip third place, a term used to define a place other than home or work where people can relax and hang out with friends. People are lining up at places like Pinkberry to get more than a cup of fro-yo; they are getting an experience.

Pinkberry is currently the name most associated with frozen yogurt. It has grown from one store to 39 in less than two years, is featured in an American Express commercial and can have lines out the door despite the unconventional flavors of original, which tastes like regular yogurt, and green tea frozen yogurt.

The toppings of Fruity Pebbles and pomegranate seeds not usually seen at a frozen yogurt shop also set it apart, as well as its avant-garde Ikea-looking décor, which includes pastel colors, wood accents, Le Klint hanging lamps that resemble swirls of yogurt, and clear plastic “ghost chairs”.

While recently-emerging frozen yogurt chains may be deemed copycats, like shops in Los Angeles named Snowberry and Berri Good, a Korean-based chain that started in 2002 called Red Mango claims to have started the Pinkberry flavor and store concept, said a February New York Times article. Red Mango, which has 130 Korea stores, opened in the U.S. this year and so far the self-proclaimed original chain has 8 U.S. stores and 20 more coming soon according to their website.

In Arcadia and Monrovia similar frozen yogurt stores have opened and while each resembles Pinkberry in some way—it’s hard to distinguish the original tart flavor they all offer—they also bring something new to the contemporarily-designed table.

Ce Fiore, a chain that opened six months after Pinkberry and with 21 stores claims to be second to Pinkberry in size, opened a shop in the Westfield Santa Anita Mall and is opening a second store in Arcadia.

“We actually offer more options than some of the competitors,” said Ce Fiore spokesman Jonathan Cutler. “We offer blackberry, raspberry-pomegranate, green tea, the nonfat original flavor, and we recently introduced acai flavor.”

The interior of the Arcadia mall Ce Fiore store has a natural feel from the wood floors, tables and walls, but the Pinkberry-esque clear plastic chairs add a futuristic element.

“We wanted to create a sleek, modern feel; something that was hip and fun,” said Cutler. “In this day and age consumers want something special. They want to come to a place where they feel like it’s a destination. It’s a third place.”

Ce Fiore’s toppings include fruit like watermelon and traditional strawberries, coconut, Fruity Pebbles, Oreos and various nuts.

To make their all-natural, non-fat Italian frozen yogurt, which has 25 calories and four grams of sugar per ounce, Ce Fiore mixes an Italian powder with other secret ingredients at a licensed milk manufacturer in the Los Angeles area.

This is a key part of the process since Pinkberry is currently being sued by a customer claiming their product is not frozen yogurt since it is produced onsite and not at a licensed dairy manufacturer, according to an ABC7 report in May. The man suing claims he does not want money, but wants Pinkberry to be honest and change their logo and signs.

As for the absence of chocolate and vanilla yogurt, Cutler said, “We will always celebrate traditional classics but we’re about reinventing something that has been around for a while. As with anything the proof is in what the consumers tell you and in the sales and we have found strong success with the popularity of our current flavor line up.”

That success has translated to another five store openings planned by the end of the year and about 40 more planned for next year, said Cutler.

Ce Fiore’s Italian frozen yogurt costs $2.50 for a kids size original flavor, 50 cents more for other flavors and 95 cents per topping.

Pinkberry’s five ounce small original flavor and toppings cost the same price.

“If you’re going to pay the same price, I’d rather have Pinkberry’s presentation,” said South Pasadena resident Natalie Suarez, who also noted that the Pasadena Pinkberry presentation is better than that of the Little Tokyo Pinkberry.

“I think how we’re able to stay ahead of the game is we continue to innovate with our products,” said Cutler, noting the creation of Ce Fiore coffee drinks and waffle products.

Another significant yogurt component, which aids in digestion and the promotion of frozen yogurt as “healthy” by some retailers, is the presence of live and active cultures.

Red Mango received the National Yogurt Association’s Live and Active Cultures seal, meaning it contains a certain number of cultures per gram and meets the NYA standards of being “made by fermenting pasteurized milk (can include skim milk and powdered skim milk, plus other ingredients) and using traditional yogurt cultures until the proper acidity is reached,” said the NYA.

All yogurts are required to be made with two specific cultures which convert milk to yogurt during fermentation and some yogurt also contains other cultures.

“Researchers are studying the potential attributes of live and active culture yogurt in preventing gastrointestinal infections, boosting the body’s immune system, fighting certain types of cancer and preventing osteoporosis,” said the NYA. “More research must be done to establish a definitive link between live and active culture yogurt and these health effects, but the results to date are encouraging.”

Nancy Chang, co-owner of Fruit Island, a self-serve frozen yogurt store in Arcadia, said frozen yogurt has gotten popular again because “it is healthy and lowfat.” Fruit Island opened in September and has modern furnishings, including Ikea lamps that look similar to the Le Klint lamps in Pinkberry.

Chang said that her cousin got the idea for a self-service yogurt shop from another self-service shop in Orange County.

“You can mix your favorites,” said Chang. “At Pinkberry they serve you and don’t know how much of each topping you want and we are priced very well.”

Customers pay 40 cents an ounce and can choose from bowls ranging in size from 12 to 16 ounces which can be filled as much or as little as they desire. The 39 toppings include fresh fruit, nuts, Cocoa Pebbles and other cereal as well as non-Pinkberry toppings like green bean, a small round bean from China, and ai yu jelly and other jellies, which are Taiwanese and look like Jell-O. Chocolate and caramel syrup, traditional toppings that are absent from Pinkberry, are also available as well as unconventional sweetened condensed milk.

Fruit Island’s non-fat frozen yogurt has 25 calories and three grams of sugar per ounce, is made with an Italian powder and yogurt and comes in strawberry, mango, green tea, taro, blueberry and original (tart) flavor.

Chang plans on adding more flavors and hopefully opening a second shop on Main Street in Alhambra.

Another independent store serving up non-fat frozen yogurt as well as coffee drinks and cupcakes with a twist is Sierra Cup, which opened in October in Old Town Monrovia.

Co-owner Larry Ogron admits that after being dissatisfied with various franchise ideas he went to a Pinkberry and liked the idea of opening a frozen yogurt shop.

“I’m also a musician so I always wanted a coffeehouse kind of thing so I thought we could merge the ideas together.”

Sierra Cup offers a modern white and pastel green interior with clear swivel stools as well as the tart flavor which is 60 calories for a small, but it also offers chocolate and vanilla frozen yogurt and a tart blueberry flavor. All the flavors use yogurt as the base and do not include a powder.

“We know the tart thing is happening and we really wanted to make our own recipe with our own secret ingredient,” said part-owner Tina Ogron. “We wanted to remember those people who wanted sweet flavors too and not just limit ourselves to the trendy flavor so we found out a lot of people like the chocolate. Blueberry was hard to find so we ended up making our own and we have the best blueberry around.”

Another distinctive aspect of the shop is a Nintendo Wii lounge complete with two flat screen TVs where customers can play Wii for free when they exchange collateral for use of the remote. The shop also offers free Wi-Fi and other flat screens playing extreme sports DVDs.

“We wanted a family night club,” said co-owner Dexter de Mesa. “We wanted to blend an adult theme and a child-friendly environment.”

Sierra Cup recently opened their back patio, equipped with cabanas, seating and a small stage to accommodate local music acts on the weekend.

A few weeks after Sierra Cup opened its doors, a Pinkberry sign advertising “swirling soon” appeared in a storefront further down Myrtle Avenue.

Sierra Cup’s owners had heard rumors about Pinkberry opening in Monrovia and knew it was official after they opened.

“I knew they would be here eventually whether it was three months, six months, or three years,” said Larry Ogron. “They got $27.5 million from Starbucks. They’re going to be in the lobby of Starbucks.”

As far as competing with Pinkberry, Tina Ogron said Sierra Cup is different and has more flavors.

In terms of cost, Sierra Cup’s small tart flavor costs $2.49 plus 79 cents per topping, such as fruit, nuts, or animal crackers.

“I don’t want to use the word competing,” said De Mesa. “We would just like to think of ourselves as having our own thing here. We’re not just trying to be a retailer; we’re really trying to be part of the community and support all these locally owned businesses and we’re hoping that the community responds in the same type of manner, in supporting us.”

“We think there’s room for both,” said Larry Ogron. “Monrovia is transforming and everybody’s anticipating a lot of growth.”

According to Monrovia Planning Division Manager Steve Sizemore a yogurt shop is a permitted use of downtown space, whether it is a large corporation or an individual ownership.

The Monrovia Planning Division reviews any exterior changes to a building and Pinkberry, like any other business, will need to abide by the Monrovia Historic Preservation Commission’s aesthetic standards.

“Ultimately, if there’s 25 frozen yogurt shops in the downtown, the market will determine which ones are successful and which ones are not successful,” said Sizemore.

Only time will tell if there is room for two, three or 25 frozen yogurt shops in any city but image and flavor are equally important ingredients in the recipe for frozen yogurt success.

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