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Sitting in the fashionable plasticity of Pinkberry in Fairfax, I’m sampling my very first cup of the famous fro-yo, trying to imagine those heady days back in 2005 when the yogurt shop debuted in West Hollywood and created a whole new kind of addict. At the time, Angelenos were willing to suffer parking tickets, neighborhood hostility, and heat stroke just for access to the original Pinkberry, which the natives took to calling Crackberry and “frozen heroin,” as if they could toughen up the image of the tart treat by invoking a junkie’s language.
More than five years later, the D.C. area finally has its own Pinkberry, which recently opened in Fairfax Corner, a neighborhood-y development that looks like an outdoor mall crossed with a studio back lot. I’m working my way through a cup of the original Pinkberry topped with mixed nuts, freshly sliced strawberries, and “dark chocolate crisps,” which are sort of like BB-sized Whoppers. I’m fairly impressed with the fro-yo’s lush texture despite the fact it’s produced with non-fat milk and non-fat yogurt. The frozen treat also delivers on its tart promise, serving up silken spoonfuls of sourness, which are slightly muted by the added sugar and milk. It’s certainly good fro-yo, if noticeably icy—but I already know that I’ll never return to Fairfax again for it.
Part of the reason, of course, is that Pinkberry arrived too late to its own party. The D.C. metro area has become overrun with fro-yo shops, a number of which were, in fact, inspired by the Los Angeles original and its popular pull of swirly tart yogurt. The founders of Tangysweet and Mr. Yogato in the District, for example, have both publicly acknowledged their debts to Pinkberry.
Steve Davis, the man behind Mr. Yogato in Dupont Circle, was a regular visitor to Pinkberry when he was based in Los Angeles, working as an engineer at the aerospace company, SpaceX. He now works in SpaceX’s D.C. office, and because he couldn’t imagine a day without quality, tart yogurt, he convinced some of his friends and fellow rocket scientists to start their own shop. “Access to free yogurt and a goofy store, that was our motivation,” explains Davis, whose Mr. Yogato is known for its spontaneous sing-a-longs and trivia challenges for fro-yo discounts.
It took Davis more than 80 attempts to create a fro-yo that he could stomach, which sort of inspires its own trivia question: How many tries does it take for a rocket scientist to make frozen yogurt? “The first 20 were disgusting,” Davis admits, recalling goopy messes that weren’t sweet enough. “After 84, it got really, really good.”
After all the time that Davis spent on engineering his recipe, I have no doubt that the scientist managed to find the right balance of ingredients for his fro-yo, which to my palate seems both creamier and sweeter than Pinkberry’s. But I also think his work is almost beside the point. The proliferation of tart yogurt shops—whether Yogiberry, Sweetgreen, FroZenYo or Caliyogurt—is similar to the runaway growth of gourmet burger joints: location means as much as the quality of product. You may travel to Fairfax for Pinkberry, but you’re far more likely just to walk around the corner to your neighborhood Sweetgreen first. This is not fine dining. There is a law of diminishing returns for fast-casual snacking; the further you have to drive for a frozen yogurt, the less sweet it becomes.
If all the tart yogurt you’ve tried in D.C. has started to blend together in your taste memory, there’s a reason. Most fro-yo stores start with a yogurt base sold by the same Italy-based company, PreGel, Tangysweet founder Aaron Gordon tells me. The product, a powder known as PreGel Yoggi 30, is typically mixed with yogurt, milk, water, and maybe one of PreGel’s flavoring packets to produce the tangy stuff. “Pretty much everybody uses it,” says Gordon, a Washington native who fell under the spell of Pinkberry when he ran his own marketing and product-placement firm in Los Angeles.
PreGel also has fro-yo recipes for those operators who don’t feel like suffering through the whole Steve Davis, knock-your-head-against-the-wall-84-times process. But even with PreGel’s base product, Gordon suggests to me that he’s put in extra hours to help develop Tangysweet’s recipe, although he admits that it’s not rocket science. “It’s not the hardest recipe in the world,” adds Gordon. “I’m not a rocket scientist like Steve [Davis] but I can still do it.”
You may be wondering why Gordon is revealing the essential secret behind the explosion of frozen yogurt in recent years. He has a reason: to show, as he says, that “the barrier to entry is much lower” in the fro-yo market than other hospitality-driven businesses. He has a secondary motivation, too: to prove that the companies that survive and thrive in this oversaturated market have more going for them than access to a quality product; they have a solid business plan, quality toppings, an attractive interior design, and, perhaps most important of all, the acumen to weather winter, when sales drop as much as 80 percent during the colder months.
Even Pinkberry has not been immune to the pitfalls of this irrational fro-yo exuberance. The chain, founded by two Korean-Americans who likely copied the concept of the South Korea fro-yo operation Red Mango (right down to the color-meets-fruit name construction), now has more than 100 locations in the United States and abroad, including about 30 shops in the greater Los Angeles area. Just this year, however, Pinkberry was forced to close a handful of stores in Southern California, including the original spot in West Hollywood, which is now a corporate support center.
Gordon, for one, thinks Pinkberry made a strategic mistake to focus so heavily on the Los Angeles area. The company, he thinks, missed its chance to expand to other cities while its brand name was still red-hot with consumers. In the five years it took Pinkberry to reach the D.C. market (another location is planned for Dupont, too), a wave of fro-yo copycats have flooded the area, from the national chain Yogen Früz to the D.C.-based chain IceBerry.
“Pinkberry’s going to get killed. They’re going to get slaughtered,” Gordon says about the chain’s entrance into the D.C. market. “In the end, people don’t really care that much about the Pinkberry name.” Price and location, Gordon believes, are much more important factors in picking a fro-yo favorite.
If history is any indication, something will eventually have to give in the new oversaturated frozen yogurt market. The treat’s first foray into American gastronomic life came in the early 1980s, when an Arkansas retiree named Frank Hickingbotham decided to sell a soft-serve yogurt that he first tasted at a Dallas-area Neiman Marcus. Apocryphal or not, Hickingbotham apparently exclaimed, “This can’t be yogurt!” upon eating it. He would eventually take his TCBY company public and build an empire of nearly 2,800 stores across the United States and abroad.
The TCBY party, however, didn’t last, thanks in large part to McDonald’s, the ultimate party crasher. In the mid-’90s, Mickey D’s started serving sweetened frozen yogurt and almost immediately took a sizeable bite out of the market. By 2000, Hickingbotham would sell his business to an investment firm that also owned the Mrs. Fields cookie chain.
Good luck finding a convenient TCBY location these days. I had to travel to the Mall That Time Forgot—otherwise known as the Springfield Mall—to get a taste of the yogurt that fed a generation. It’s buried on the bottom level of the eerily empty mall, combined with a Mrs. Fields cookie shop, two ’80s refugees trying to hang on for dear life in a shopping center doing the same. My small cup of “golden vanilla” tasted nothing like its tart contemporaries. It was soft-serve ice cream masquerading as yogurt.
Tangysweet’s Gordon thinks the second generation of fro-yo shops will enjoy a longer life just because their tart treats are healthier than their soft-serve forebears. The new frozen yogurts have less fat, less sugar, and more live cultures, which proprietors love to promote as healthy. Maybe Gordon is right about his company’s longevity or maybe he’s hoping McDonald’s never starts selling tart yogurt with lots of toppings. One thing’s for certain, though: Gordon and perhaps others are not sweating the competition from Pinkberry, which is viewed as little more than a bit player in a market that the Los Angeles chain essentially created.
Pinkberry, 11942 Grand Commons Ave., Fairfax, (703) 266-1113
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery