Frozen yogurt returns as a hot trend in the Toledo area

Levis Commons among places to find cool treats

7/5/2012
BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Yogurt Vi managers Mike Musilli, left, and Ek Navamal, both of Perrysburg, show off the desserts they created in the self-serve store.
Yogurt Vi managers Mike Musilli, left, and Ek Navamal, both of Perrysburg, show off the desserts they created in the self-serve store.

Frozen yogurt, the trendy, soft-serve cold treat that took off in the late 1980s and early '90s before fading somewhat into obscurity, has regained its retail relevance.

Self-serve frozen yogurt stores have begun to pop up all over the country, with metro Toledo no exception.

"There is definitely a very sustained resurgence and consumer interest in frozen yogurt. That really is a phenomenon that is coast-to-coat and it has been in full swing for the last six years," said Corey Henry, vice president of the National Yogurt Association, which is based in McLean, Va.

According to market research firm the NPD Group, there were 4,765 frozen yogurt stores nationwide last fall, up 31 percent from the fall of 2006 when there were 3,031 stores. Frozen yogurt sales rose 8 percent in 2011 from a year earlier, according to NPD, of Port Washington, N.Y.

No fewer than five new varieties of frozen yogurt stores have opened in the Toledo area in the last 12 months -- Toppers Frozen Yogurt, Lola's Frozen Yogurt, Koala Berry, Yogurt Vi, and Apricato.

The prospect for more competitors seems likely as the trend keeps exploding. There were 64 frozen yogurt stores in Ohio as of last fall, according to NPD.

Frozen yogurt was a hot retail trend 25 years ago, riding the back of TCBY Inc., which helped popularize the sweet treat. At one point the company had 2,000 stores nationwide, and there were nine TCBY stores in the Toledo area in 1992. But a proliferation of imitators and other competitors whittled the chain down, and eventually it went through a bankruptcy. While part of the Mrs. Fields Famous Brands Co. TCBY remains, it now has about 470 stores. The last TCBY store in the Toledo area was in Lambertville and closed several years ago.

Pete Shawaker, a commercial Realtor with the Reichle Klein Group in Toledo, said what killed frozen yogurt shops in the 1990s was too much competition.

"The grocery stores got into the act, selling more yogurt and frozen yogurt, and then the mainstream ice cream stores like Baskin-Robbins started selling it too," he said. "All of a sudden the unique frozen yogurt places got hurt because they were no longer unique anymore. They became too common."

Mr. Henry said the new variety of "froyo" stores are far different than those of 25 years ago.

The new wave of stores are mainly self-serve, with yogurt sold by the ounce so a customer can buy as little or as much as desired instead of servings based on cup sizes.

The new concepts also carry a dozen or more flavors, rather than two or three, and they offer dozens of topping choices, including several varieties of fruit.

They also focus more heavily on the health aspects of the product.

"It's a combination of a number of different factors. But one of them is the health issue," Mr. Henry said. "Consumers are looking for treats that are healthy and it's about understanding that, whether it's regular yogurt or frozen yogurt, the product has what we call probiotic cultures.

"Probiotics offer a number of health benefits. They improve digestion and health," he said. "Also, the new products are a good source of vitamins and nutrients, and it's also something that's affordable."

Yogurt Vi at Levis Commons in Perrysburg offers a variety
of yogurt flavors and toppings.
Yogurt Vi at Levis Commons in Perrysburg offers a variety of yogurt flavors and toppings.

The yogurt association offers a special symbol, called the "Live & Active Culture" seal, that certifies the product being sold has significant amounts of probiotic and other healthy attributes. The association tests products before it awards the seal, and if a store displays the seal, "it lets consumers know that the frozen yogurt they're eating does offer the health benefits that consumers think they should be getting," Mr. Henry said.

Most of the new wave of stores in the Toledo area utilize products with the "Live & Active Culture" seal.

John Robie, co-owner of Koala Berry, invested in a new frozen yogurt store, opened in December, after he and his partner went looking for a retail business venture.

"As we spoke with people, in particular food suppliers and restaurant people, they told us about this resurgence of frozen yogurt and especially this self-serve area," Mr. Robie said. "So we took some field trips to find out about it and we liked it. Our experience with it has been very favorable."

Koala Berry is on Central Avenue in Sylvania Township.

Mr. Robie said his store and many of the new wave of "froyo" stores are more like a bistro and less like an ice cream store that the previous generation of frozen yogurt shops resembled.

Koala Berry, for example, is impeccably clean, with self-serve machines, an area for dry toppings, and a salad bar-like area for fruit toppings. It offers 14 flavors of yogurt and 65 different toppings.

"What will set these stores apart is the way they present themselves to the public," Mr. Robie said. "So it's quite a different method of distribution now. People are serving themselves and putting exactly what they want in their cup."

Michael Lam is the owner of Yogurt Vi, which has become a Maumee-based chain of 10 frozen yogurt stores in Ohio and West Virginia. He opened his Toledo-area store in March in Levis Commons in Perrysburg, and is building his 11th store in Kent, Ohio.

Mr. Lam decided to jump into the new frozen yogurt trend in early 2011. "I was in California and I saw a lot of frozen yogurt shops and decided to try it for myself," he said.

He was advised that opening a frozen yogurt store in a colder state like Ohio was a risk, but the trend was irresistible, he said. "When you think about it, yogurt is almost like ice cream. And in the cold winter states you still eat ice cream in the winter. So why not do a yogurt store?" Mr. Lam said.

The venture has been a great success, he said.

"It's doing real well and I think the [self-serve] idea is really what's good about it," Mr. Lam said. "Before if you wanted it, maybe not everyone wanted a big cup. But now the child, the parent, and the grandparent get what they want. This way you're being there with your whole family and it becomes a family experience."

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.