December 2006/January 2007
The Yogurt Heard Round the World
By Jennifer Kim
Pinkberry, Fiore, Red Mango, Kiwiberri.
If you haven’t heard of these funny-sounding names, you soon will. They’re coming to a town near you, and bringing with them soft-serve frozen yogurt with an all-natural twist.
These four Korean/Korean-American-owned frozen yogurt shops have recently caused a frenzy in health-conscious Los Angeles, where one store’s product has been dubbed “crackberry” and “frozen heroin juice,” but not in a bad way. There’s also been some Korean soap-opera style drama among the competitors and even controversy about the yogurt itself.
The product of interest is not the ’80s version of froyo; that was wannabe ice cream. Causing the froyo phenomena in Los Angeles is a treat that lets yogurt be yogurt in all its tart and tangy goodness. There aren’t loads of artificial sweeteners and chemicals trying to hide the real essence of yogurt, which to some is an acquired taste. It’s been described as a refreshing dessert without the heavy feeling of ice cream.
The trend began with Pinkberry, a little shop that opened in January 2005 in West Hollywood. Pinkberry carries only two flavors—plain and green tea—with a selection of fresh fruit, cereal and candy toppings. Standing in lines that have been up to an hour long, Angelenos became addicted to Pinkberry’s product, which has no fat and 25 calories an ounce.
Los Angeles food blogger Colleen Cuisine, 27, who’s been a Pinkberry devotee since its inception and also has jokingly signed off her posts as “Your official L.A. Yogurt Reporter” says, “I think a lot of L.A. girls use it as a diet trick – just eat one plain Pinkberry twice a day, nothing else, and you’ll lose weight!” Additionally, the health benefits of yogurt are being touted with a sign in one Pinkberry store saying it “Strengthens bones and teeth. Prevents bacteria in intestines. Helps prevent acne and build clear skin.” What purportedly gives yogurt all these super powers are its live active cultures (good bacteria). But, as has been furiously debated in L.A. blogs, can these bacteria survive being frozen?
According to registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association Cynthia Sass, “Some [bacteria] are killed off, but generally yogurt contains hundreds if not billions [of bacteria] that become dormant when frozen then active again after thawing or eating. It really depends on how the yogurt is made and how much bacteria is added in. There is limited research showing that live active cultures can improve digestion or boost immunity, and some yogurts contain them but no, you really can’t say that yogurt is a ‘proven health food.’” She cautions that frozen yogurt may be more sugar than yogurt. Compared to its heavier cousin ice cream, Pinkberry's frozen yogurt can be described as having "less calories and fat, but not healthier,” says Sass, who compared Pinkberry's nutritional facts with FDA requirements for when a food can put the word "healthy" on its label. The froyo alone, Pinkberry’s as well as frozen yogurt in general, does not have enough vitamins to be labeled as such, she says. But since Pinkberry is not being sold in stores, no food label is actually required and calling it "healthy" is not against FDA regulations.
For now, Pinkberry is keeping its actual ingredients a secret. However, Seung Lee, 24, the store manager of Fiore, which is in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, says his product is made with “a yogurt base powder from Italy, yogurt, milk, water and a little citrus, natural lemon juice to make it more refreshing. The powder (which gives the flavor) does have a little sugar in it, but we’re looking into non-sugar options.” Fiore’s teas and smoothies are sweetened with stevia, a natural sweetener, and their green tea yogurt is made with real, premium matcha from Japan. Fiore won best frozen yogurt in an informal poll run by Colleen Cuisine’s blog.
Karen Hochman, editorial director of TheNibble.com, says frozen yogurt that is 22 to 25 calories an ounce is no different from Breyer’s or Dreyer’s low-carb, nonfat ice cream and Tasti-D-Lite, which is popular in New York City. And these products also have calcium and vitamins. She also cautions people regarding portion sizes. “Four ounces would be if you leveled off the top of the cup- like a Dixie cup. So, you think you’re eating a small for 100 to 125 calories, but it’s more like 200 calories, and the medium is more like 400 calories. Caveat Emptor!”
ImageAll this yogurt debate doesn’t matter to Howard Hong, a telecommunications consultant, and fan of Pinkberry. He describes himself as a “fruit lover” who visits Pinkberry at least three times a week for his “usual” – a medium (8 ounces) plain yogurt with three fresh fruit toppings for $4.95. “To me, the plain yogurt is like white rice; food tastes better over it.” A large (13 ounces) green tea yogurt with three toppings is $9.95.
Just as shocking as the pricing is the behind-the-scenes “straight out Korean drama” actions amongst yogurt shop owners, which have been covered by The Korea Daily, a Los Angeles-based newspaper, and several food blogs. The controversy —over who really created the all-natural frozen yogurt concept and who are the copycats— got more heated in August when Fiore (which is owned by all-you-can eat seafood giant Todai) and Kiwiberri opened, followed the next month by two more Pinkberry openings in Los Angeles. Each store is planning franchises and there are other stores in Koreatown also planning chains.
Some bloggers and other media have insinuated that Pinkberry stole its concept from Korean frozen dessert chains Red Mango and Ice Berry. And rumors circulate in the Korean community of jilted CEO lovers, attempts to block trademarks and a Pinkberry owner who paid a threatening visit to Kiwiberri. John Bae, 27, the owner of Kiwiberri, filed a police report on Sept. 1, against Young Lee, a Pinkberry owner, for verbally threatening him. The Los Angeles Police Department said detectives have an open case on this. (Pinkberry declined to be interviewed for this article.) Also, some blog commentators, with names like YogurtfanatiK, Onlythetruth and Y-Baby, have gotten emotional with one post ending "Let us strive to coexist amicably and stop this nonsense.”
Brandon Jo, 37, president and COO of Los Angeles-based Red Mango Inc. (the parent company is located in Korea), says they plan to open their first store in spring 2007 in Los Angeles. Launched in Korea in 2003, Red Mango opened 170 stores within three years because of its incredible popularity. Jo says because they were so busy in Korea, the company did not expand to America as soon as they would have liked, though coming to the U.S. was a plan of theirs.
“We want to get the truth out there. Red Mango introduced the ‘natural’ frozen yogurt product category to Korea, and many other copycat competitors followed. Red Mango is now synonymous with frozen yogurt in Korea. Red Mango sells natural, green tea and strawberry (limited to some stores). Pinkberry sells natural and green tea. You know who opened first. It’s a crazy mess yogurt war right now.”
What does he think of Pinkberry beating them to the punch? “In a way we are kind of thankful because they did our market testing for us, that our product category works well in the United States and probably all over the world. So we have big aspirations. L.A. is a big market, but there are 49 other states and other countries that are waiting to taste and discover our natural frozen yogurt.”
With Pinkberry planning to expand to 30 sites in L.A. and 30 sites in New York (according to The Los Angeles Times), Fiore moving into Hawaii and Las Vegas, Kiwiberri to Arizona and Florida, and Red Mango planning world domination, soon there will be an avalanche of tasty froyo au naturel.
Jae Hee Lee, a reporter with The Korea Daily who has written more than 10 articles covering the “frozen yogurt boom” in the Korean American community, says that because of the success of Pinkberry, “every Korean wants to open a frozen yogurt shop now.” She worries that frozen yogurt could go the way of boba, which was popular in Koreatown four to five years ago. But she says, “nobody’s eating boba now.”
* photos courtesy of Red Mango
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