For New Yorkers, frozen yogurt has been the guilt-free (except when it’s not) frosty dessert of choice. This all started sometime in the early 2000s when the Tennessee-based chain Tasti D-Lite embarked on a vast expansion throughout Manhattan, selling its chocolate, vanilla and peanut butter soft serve by promising to deliver under 100 calories a serving. For cal-conscious New Yorkers, this was nothing short of god's work and Tasti D-Lite (sometimes shortened to Tasty D by its supporters) began popping up from Washington Heights to Tribeca — and reached its peak in 2004 was it was name-checked on an episode of Sex And The City. The company stresses that the product is not, technically, frozen yogurt because it doesn’t contain yogurt cultures. But for the sake of this story, we’re calling it fro-yo.
Jump to December 2007. Tasty D expansion is rolling along nicely when South Korean chain Red Mango opens its first location on Bleecker Street, debuting steps away from the flagship location of Pinkberry, a Los Angeles-based yogurt shop founded by Korean immigrants Shelly Hwang and Young Lee that had opened a few months earlier. The similarities between the two enterprises are palpable. Both sell a distinctly Asian soft serve that emphasizes tartness-over-sweetness, a sharp contrast to the flabbier European varieties. Both sell their yogurts in minimally designed spaces with a strong attention to customer service and expanding fro-yo IQ. Pinkberry, in particular, staffed employees tasked with asking every customer “is this your first visit to Pinkberry?” Soon, the answer was a resounding yes as the two companies battled in what The New York Times called the Frozen Yogurt Wars.
As New Yorkers began to pick between Pinkberry and Red Mango, a California-born businessman named Solomon Choi had his own fro-yo angle and started walking the streets of New York. “I walked from Chinatown to Times Square so many times,” he told QSR magazine. “I needed to understand traffic patterns and was warned just being on the wrong side of a street can cause a business to fail.” Choi would ultimately pick the correct side of the street, opening his first 16 Handles location near the New York University campus in 2008. 16 Handles (sometimes shortened to Handles by its supporters) changed the game by not only selling a mix of Asian and European-styled flavors, but introducing a pay-by-weight self-serve model.
Gone was the standard fixed four or five dollar price per cup, with customers instead pulling their own quantity of yogurt from a range of rotating flavors like birthday cake and blood orange sorbetto (16 of them, as the name suggests) and piling on as many toppings as they desired. The weight is totaled at the end and the customer is charged around $.55 an ounce — or between three and seven dollars a serving. “We pride ourselves on strong operations, keeping the store clean and flavor innovation,” Choi told Bloomberg TV last month in a segment discussing the opening of the first Dairy Queen in New York City. Which leads to the question at hand: the state of the New York City frozen yogurt market. Even with Choi and the Pinkberry/Red Mango owners still bullish about their business operations, there is growing skepticism.
Hugh Merwin, senior editor at Grub Street, recently reported that based on economic data and the shifting tastes of his office co-workers, the industry is in trouble. The story, Fro-No: How New York City Soured on Frozen Yogurt, paints the picture of yogurt shop owners fighting soaring real estate costs and the shifting tates of a health-obsessed population. The story cites a number of closures, mostly branches of Mango/Pinkberry ("Big Frogurt"), and how some yogurt companies are pivoting their businesses with an eye on green juice.
And while we cannot deny that turnover abounds — most food chains are struggling with the over-heated real estate market — 16 Handles has grown its market share in 2014 with eyes on expansion. And we’ve reported extensively about the booming juice industry, which is undeniable. But it’s simple business logic for the big chains to compliment their business model with a white-hot (and high-margin) category. Green juice is big, but it’s hardly the same as a swirl of green tea and pomegranate soft serve topped with fresh raspberries and mochi.
Boom or bust, it’s clear that that New York City frozen yogurt shops have changed the face of the city forever. Last week a Tumblr launched with the main goal of documenting the before-after effects of frozen yogurtery. Now It’s A Fucking Fro Yo Place is curated by an anonymous New Yorker, who uses Google Maps and a sharp wit to profile fro-yo takeovers. And, if Merwin’s assessment turns out to be accurate, we await the launch of Now It’s A Fucking Green Juice Counter in the near future.
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