Yogurt, the comeback kid – Will Chicagoans warm to this fro-yo craze?

05.07.08

You’d think as one of the fattest cities in America (according to Men’s Fitness magazine), Chicago wouldn’t be prone to health fads.  Give us a tub of ice cream and watch our couches groan.

In 2005, when Pinkberry established its first low-fat frozen dessert bulwark in West Hollywood, Chicago ignored the celebrity-fueled hubbub and continued to slurp down Cold Stone Creamery and Baskin Robbins.

Fast forward to today, and a local frozen-yogurt frenzy fueled by stores like Berry Chill, Red Mango, Yoberri and Starfruit is in full bloom.

The movement was incubating years ago.  In 2004 Yoberri owner Kimberly Smith, 21, was exposed to frozen yogurt at mom-and-pop shops in Florence, Italy.  When she returned to the States, she was excited about opening her own place but, as she says, “My parents were like, ‘You’re 17. Finish school first.’ ”

Four years later, she still hasn’t heeded their advice.  She splits time studying business and sociology at Northeastern Illinois University and working at the store.

Michael Farah, CEO of Berry Chill, has been working on his store’s concept since December 2006.  Julie Smolyansky, president and CEO of Lifeway Foods and owner of Ukrainian Village’s Starfruit, says her product has been in development for more than a decade.

“It’s ridiculous — Indianapolis had a frozen yogurt spot before we did,” Farah says.  “There’s a lot of work that goes into something like this. We developed our own proprietary blend of yogurt from scratch.”

The success of Pinkberry gave many entrepreneurs a sign that healthy frozen dessert could be lucrative.  But not everyone was riding that wave.  Red Mango, which opened in Korea in 2002, was one of the originators of the current trend, but cold weather and skepticism about Chicago kept them away.  (The chain finally will open stores in Naperville and Evanston in May.).

“Chicago wasn’t high on our list,” says Dan Kim, CEO of Red Mango.  “But we looked at the success of Jamba Juice.  The franchises in Chicago are some of the most successful in the country.  There’s a density of families with above-average income and young children, and people who are seeking healthier foods here.”

Many children of the ’80s remember whiling away summer afternoons in mall food courts, stepping up to the TCBY counter and loading down a cup of frozen yogurt with Gummi Bears, candy sprinkles and Butterfinger chunks.  Like Cabbage Patch Kids and Transformers, it was almost a rite of passage.

The ’80s yogurt was a creamy, soft-serve product much more like ice cream, with added sugars and flavorings.  By the late ’90s, fro-yo was competing with low-sugar ice creams and low-carb fads like the Atkins and South Beach diets.

“It was artificial,” Farah says.  “My stomach would hurt after I ate a large cup of it.”

The current frozen yogurt trend is marked by low-calorie, zero fat, low-sugar products filled with live active bacteria cultures, often called probiotics. These cultures impart a lemon-lime like tartness to the product.

The amount and types of live active cultures, as well as cultural marketing differences, are the pitched battle lines along which the companies are trying to differentiate their product.

“We have 10 live active cultures,” Smolyansky of Starfruit says.  “Some of our competitors say they have 12, but they really have two cultures with different strains.”

Kim calls Pinkberry “Hello Kittyesque” and says Red Mango offers a more upscale, cafe-like environment.  He also is quick to point out Red Mango’s yogurt has 400 million cultures per gram.

Yoberri’s Smith refuses to get caught up in the fray.

“Whatever, million, billion, trillion, active cultures. It doesn’t mean anything,” she says.  “What’s important is that it’s tasty yogurt.

“There’s always going to be a competitor, like with coffee.  Everyone has their own niche.  I don’t worry about that all.  We’re confident in our product.”

Fro-Yo Throwdown

The spot / The vibe / The verdict

Berry Chill

635 N. State

(312) 266-2445

5-ounce cup, $2.99

With eight flat-screen TVs packed into a tiny storefront, this spot might have more plasma per square foot than a local blood bank.

The yogurt has a grainy, almost ice milk-like texture and a sharp tartness reminiscent of lemon lime Gatorade.  Worst of the three yogurts.

Starfruit

1745 W. Division

(773) 328-2900

5-ounce cup, $3

The shop rocks the cosmic vibe with its spacey fruit decals and pink-shirted employees.

Not classified as frozen yogurt but a proprietary blend called Kefir.  Dense and creamy, with very little distinction from frozen yogurt in actual flavor.  Tartness not as pronounced as at Berry Chill.

Yoberri

2814 N. Halsted

(773) 348-3762

5-ounce cup, $2.50

The most understated of the fro-yo joints, with a handful of dark wood booths and tables and subtle purple flocked wall decal.

WINNER – The lightest and most balanced, with a hint of tartness.  Probably the closest to unfrozen yogurt, and my go-to if I were a super health food devotee.

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