The machine that launched a thousand fro-yo shops. This one is Bloop's, which features flavor names on a video display.
It's often hard to tell one fro-yo place from another, as the bright colors and bank of soft-serve machines are the standard. This one is Berry Berry.
Just two years ago, locally owned Arch's Frozen Yogurt, with locations on Ivy Road, the Corner, and Emmet Street, was the only fro-yo game in town. Today, there are three new regional franchises serving the stuff, and one already has three locations–- Sweet Frog (Downtown, Barracks, Hollymead), Bloop (Pantops), and Berry Berry (the Corner). And it might be only a matter of time before the big national players, Pinkberry and Yogurtland, take up residence.
So what is going on? Blame it on Korea and California.
In 2004, a place called Red Mango in South Korea started selling old-fashioned-style sour yogurt. Three years later, Red Mango had 150 stores in South Korea and was making plans to expand in the United States. Then a Korean couple in West Hollywood opened a strikingly similar kind of place called Pinkberry. Today, there are over 100 Pinkberry stores, and an equal number of Red Mangos, mostly in L.A. and New York City. Next, L.A.-based Yogurtland, founded by another Korean-American, introduced the self-serve, soft-serve concept and an official craze was born.
Locally, Derek Cha and his wife, Mi Jung Kim–- yes, another Korean couple– had a picture-framing business in Short Pump, but after seeing how well frozen yogurt shops were doing on the west coast they decided to open their own in 2009. Sweet Frog was born. Since 2010, the franchise has grown at an alarming rate–over 100 Sweet Frog stores have opened between Massachusetts and Florida, and they soon could overtake Yogurtland.
Two weeks ago, another budding franchise opened on the Corner, Berry Berry Frozen Yogurt, this time founded by a Chinese-American in Winchester. Owner Phung Huynh laughs when asked why the business is dominated by Koreans and other Asian-Americans.
"Probably because it originated in Korea,"she says. "But I'm not really sure why."
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the concept is a business owner's dream: self-serve yogurt machines and a buffet-style fixins' bar translate into minimal staffing needs. With the customers at the controls and the food sold by the ounce, usually between 30 and 40 cents, the situation seems to tempt eaters– often kids– to pile it on.
Huynh says she's not really concerned about all the other fro-yo shops opening up in town because theirs is homemade with Greek yogurt, which is not only fat-free and low-calorie, but creamier than mix-based frozen yogurt. Plus, it is rich in protein and probiotics. Big companies like Ben & Jerry’s and Stonyfield, wanting a piece of the fro-yo market, have been pushing their versions of Greek pretty heavily. Accordingly, though, it is more expensive than regular frozen yogurt.
"But it's really the smoothness people like," says Huynh. "At other places it tends to come out too icy."
Rob Archer, owner with his wife, Sandy, of Arch's, might beg to differ. For two decades, Charlottesvillians have been gobbling up their creamy Edy's and Wow Cow (non fat and just 12 calories an ounce). Bloop, which opened earlier this year on Pantops Mountain, emphasizes that it uses real fruit to make its yogurts, not syrups.
Another oddity here: according to a Pinkberry study, out of 60 percent of people surveyed who said they have fro-yo at least once a week, 80 percent are women. We saw 10 women arrive at once at the Arch's on the Corner, and during a visit to Berry Berry, we ran into four female UVA hospital dietary interns gobbling the stuff, quickly justifying their indulgence by pointing out it has lots of protein.
In actuality, though, frozen yogurt, while indeed lower in fat and higher in protein than ice cream, delivers about the same calories, especially when one starts adding those candy toppings. But there may be another reason why women love the stuff.
"It's all the great chocolate and candy toppings," says a woman who wished to remain anonymous, "that you can just put on without asking for."
Rob Archer admits that the second coming of fro-yo took him somewhat by surprise. In response, he recently re-fitted the Corner location with self-serve yogurt machines and a fixins bar, a departure from the counter service model Arch's has offered since opening in 1992.
"Maybe we should have done it sooner," says Archer, who reopened the Corner location in early September. "Personally, I like that we still have the counter service at our other locations. But we had to give people what they want."
Indeed, Berry Berry is just steps away from Arch's Corner location. And across the street from Arch's Emmet Street location, in the North Wing of the Barracks Road Shopping Center, there's another Sweet Frog.
"It was time to pump some energy into the old place anyway," says Archer, who says that between raising four kids and coaching youth football there's sometimes not much energy left. "So we revamped the Corner location."
As for the powerful fro-yo trend now reaching Charlottesville, the Archers find themselves in a challenging business situation. How do they maintain the local hold they've had on the market for twenty years while a trend floods the marketplace?
"Keep on doing what we've been doing," answers Archer, emphasizing the local business aspect and his hope that an eventual shake-up will weed out the best from the rest. As a mom and pop operation, Archer says he and his wife can't afford a team of marketing and public relations people promoting the brand, and he has no interest in challenging what the other shops are doing.
"I'm not going to disparage anyone," he says. "I just don't want to go there."
Indeed, so far, competition among the local shops has been civil, but could it get heated as more shops open? On the West Coast, for example, competition between Pinkberry, Red Mango, and Yogurtland, along with dozens of other upstarts, became so heated that it was dubbed "The Frozen Yogurt Wars" by the L.A. Times.
Along with innovations and new flavors, there were threats, lawsuits, and gimmicks galor. But that's actually old news out west. The L.A. Times was reporting on the craze in 2007, when other media outlets were already saying that the market had reached such a saturation point that dozens of Pinkberry and Red Mango copy-cats would go out of business, something that eventually transpired as the "Big Fro-Yo Melt."
Indeed, anyone compelled to open a new shop might want consider how fickle the fro-yo market can by recalling what happened to TCBY. In 1997, at the height of its success, TCBY had over 2,000 stores across the country. Today, it has around 400, and it's begun retooling some for self-serve.
Could a meltdown be far off as the fro-yo market heats up in Charlottesville? We'll have to eat and see.