Sunday, February 6, 2011

Frozen Fads

As a female college student, it might not surprise you that I’m a froyo enthusiast. Over the years, I’ve observed how frozen yogurt has grown enormously popular and evolved to reflect the trends of our time. 

Frozen yogurt first became mainstream in the 1980s as a healthier alternative to its calorie-rich cousin—ice cream. Frozen yogurt versions of popular ice cream flavors were created and were sold side by side with ice cream. The first frozen yogurt franchise to make it big was TCBY, which is still around today. Froyo sales reached $25 million in 1986 and by the 1990s, it was 10% of the dessert market. The product was actually invented a decade earlier, but it was unsuccessful at entering the market because consumers disliked the tart flavor. It wasn’t until manufacturers developed a sweeter version and people started to become more health-conscious that the froyo concept took off.

Fast-forward to the early 2000s. Atkins is the fad diet du jour and carb evading and calorie counting are at an all time high. The reality of America’s obesity problem is starting to set in.  Frozen yogurt was considered healthier than ice cream, but it was still a dessert with plenty of calories. It was the perfect environment for New York City based chain Tasti-D-Lite to take a foothold. I was in high school when I discovered the franchise and I was obsessed. It wasn’t exactly frozen yogurt, but it tasted like it and it was shockingly low in calories. Tasti was featured on Sex and the City and on The Apprentice and I witnessed an explosion of new Tasti shops throughout the city.

By the mid-2000s, the Tasti concept was losing steam. The company was sued for lying about the calorie content of its non-vanilla flavors and the fact that it was not legally allowed to call itself yogurt or ice cream, but was instead referred to as “frozen treat,” made it seem fake and unhealthy. Organic and natural foods were all the rage and people became more concerned with the quality of the food they were putting into their bodies than the calorie content. It was time for frozen yogurt to reinvent itself once again. Enter Pinkberry. The Pinkberry concept brought frozen yogurt back to its roots, serving the dessert in its original tart and tangy form. Perhaps more importantly, Pinkberry offered a variety of healthy toppings, like fruits, berries and granola. Based in Hollywood, Pinkberry became wildly popular and began expanding internationally in 2009.

Pinkberry’s success has spawned competitors. Red Mango, which claims it started in Korea before Pinkberry was even conceived in the US, prides itself of having the most active cultures in its yogurt.  I’m a huge fan of Durham’s Local Yogurt, which is similar to Pinkberry in décor but feels more authentic and natural since it’s locally owned. But even Pinkberry’s model is starting to fade. The newest frozen yogurt fad is the self-serve concept, where customers have total control over the yogurt and topping selection and are charged by weight. Self-serve is significantly cheaper than “full-service” shops and you can control how much you want to eat, satisfying portion control-freaks and those that want a little bit of everything. It’s interesting to see how the ‘healthy’ dessert category has changed over the years, representing what our current ideas of what it means to be healthy. I can’t wait to taste what comes next!