Culture

What Happened To All The Frozen Yogurt Shops?

By Andrea Mew··  9 min read
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It’s 2010, you’re at the mall with your school friends, and “California Gurls” by Katy Perry is playing for what feels like the hundredth time this week as you step foot into your fave froyo shop.

You probably did the exact same thing last weekend, but this time you’re going to enjoy a different flavored swirl and let your imagination run wild with a wacky combo of toppings. Oh, and the best part? It felt totally guilt-free.

You and the girls would probably chat about everything under the sun until one of your parents gave you a ring on your Razr phone to tell you that they were on their way to come pick you up and to meet them outside of the food court…or something like that.

Whatever scenario it was, froyo was as much a staple as the Starbucks Frappuccinos and lattes you’d see other ladies toting around the mall. But then one day those cups piled high with swirled dairy delicacies, fresh fruit, and chocolate treats kind of vanished. So what happened to all of the frozen yogurt shops?

Froyo Is Nothing New

American frozen yogurt trends blossomed in the 1980s during the rise of the low-fat, low-sugar diet crave. Froyo frenzy was proliferated by skinny celebrities and media stapes like SNL and Sex and the City.

But the froyo trend has waxed and waned over the years in a repeating cycle. Between the ‘80s and the early 2000s, frozen yogurt production in America dropped 55%. A reawakening took over the food industry soon thereafter starting in Asia with Dan Kim’s Red Mango. Seoul, South Korea went wild for the sweet treat that married Italian-tart flavored gelato and creamier soft serves.

Enter the Hollywood response to Red Mango: Pinkberry.

At one point, Pinkberry was the must-have snack in coastal cities from SoCal to New York. Originally it only came in two exclusive flavors: tart and green tea. But as the chain and competitors diversified the field, the wide variety of flavor bases and toppings did too: cookies, sweet cereals, popping boba, fruits, mochi, syrups, and more.

Pinkberry was the must-have snack in coastal cities from SoCal to New York.

Froyo shops usurped every vacant building in strip malls and street corners thanks to huge revolutionary leaps in the industry. Manufacturers like Danone and Pregel made it easy for any aspiring entrepreneur to start their own frozen yogurt shop when they developed liquefied and powderized forms of yogurt. 

Times seemed so simple during the froyo frenzy. Leonardo DiCaprio allegedly served Red Mango in his office, and Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan were snapped by paparazzi donning their Pinkberry cups like it was the next purse puppy. 

Where in the World Did All of This Interest Come from?

Much like any trend that Hollywood helped shoot to fame, people flocked to froyo shops since the product was posed as a health food.

“It doesn’t feel like I’m cheating when I’m eating it,” rapped hip-hop icon of the time Lady Tigra.

The logical cycle we all went through when introduced to frozen yogurt probably went something like this: yogurt is good because of the probiotics and protein, there are low-fat versions of it that remind me of soft-serve ice cream, therefore frozen yogurt is the best of both worlds because it has the probiotics and protein without any of the fattening stuff I don’t want.

Like with most front-of-package nutritional labeling, our eyes are drawn to buzzy, clean labels like “organic,” “fat-free,” “no added sugar,” or “gluten-free.” Studies have shown that when we read that a food trend is healthy, it gives us a halo effect. This means that good labeling improves our perceptions of products whether they are vice or virtue products.

Clever marketing will tell us that things like frozen yogurt are a smarter choice, and we’ll accept it as gospel, even when it might actually be a less healthy product. Consumers were enticed by the idea that they could still enjoy a frozen treat and maintain a slim figure. After all, celebs ate it and stayed svelte…so we all could too, right?

Wait, I Thought Froyo Was Healthier Than Other Options

To be fair, picking frozen yogurt over something like thick frozen custard or indulgent baked and fried goods is probably a healthier choice. Frozen yogurt does contain beneficial probiotics, despite legal drama over whether or not top brands like Pinkberry actually contained live active cultures.

Froyo also gets bonus “healthy” points for being low-fat and therefore lower in calories. But as is the case with other low-fat dairy products, manufacturers add in other ingredients to make it taste better since all of the tasty fat has been removed. 

So while you’re still getting the good live cultures, protein, and calcium from your froyo, you’re not getting any healthy fats that satiate. That could lead you to eat more of it or to make up for those calories with the infamously wide range of tempting toppings at froyo shops.

You get live cultures, protein, and calcium from froyo, but not any healthy fats that satiate.

Ironically, you have the choice of topping off the healthy yogurt bases with indulgent toppings which totally negate any efforts you were making to enjoy a lower-calorie, less decadent treat. After all, a buffet line of cookie pieces, small chocolate candies, gummy bears (which notoriously got too hard and chewy if they sat in the chilly yogurt), popping boba, mochi, and more were way more tantalizing to consumers than the fresh fruit topping options. 

Well, the only thing holding you back from topping it too high with unhealthy toppings was the food scale that would tell your parents just how much money they were sinking into your dessert.

Froyo Is Still Under Fire for Its Health Claims

Yet, to this day it feels as though, despite froyo shops being fewer and farther between, the debate is never-ending over whether or not it’s healthy. Last spring, Demi Lovato had some major, public beef with a Los Angeles frozen yogurt shop because of how it chose to label sugar-free, gluten-free, and dairy-free options. 

She called them out for perpetuating diet culture with their labels which she claimed triggered her. Her reasoning was that “if there is a sign that (said) ‘celiac,’ ‘vegan,’ I would’ve understood. That would’ve been clear messaging to me.”

And hey, I get it. A lot of people nowadays adopt dairy-free lifestyles without being lactose intolerant or having a lactose allergy, or going gluten-free even though they’re not diagnosed with celiac disease. 

While everyone has the right to make choices for themselves as they see fit, it could be frustrating to someone who had gone through the ringer with fad diets to see trendy marketing leading someone to the faulty conclusion that they might be making a healthier dietary choice.

What Has Been Killing Off Froyo Fever?

Say goodbye to the photogenic swirl and say hello to the next over-the-top trend. 

Safe to say: the aesthetically pleasing froyo dessert is an incredible marketing tool. Not only can you snap an Instagram-worthy photo of your treat, but you can also snap an Insta-worthy photo with your girlfriends out at trendy gathering spots. Froyo shops relished in satisfying this itch until consumers grew fatigued with the same aesthetics and sought out the next big thing.

One niche dessert trend that shelved froyo was rolled ice cream. As is the case with desserts that blossom nationwide, rolled ice cream hailed from South Asia before being championed by Southern California entrepreneurs.

Rolled ice cream changed the game because it was curated dairy art. It took over as a trend, not only because of how incredibly Instagrammable it was, but also because of the unique texture from being crafted on a cold stone. Much like DIY frozen yogurt shops, rolled ice cream was mostly a novelty, but it paved the way for plenty of industry disruptors.

Viral desserts catch on so quickly because they go beyond your wildest imagination. It becomes a status symbol to show off that you’ve tried the newest thing, and it definitely helps when that thing looks aesthetically pleasing for your feed or story. 

The Cronut had its moment, then FreakShakes, then ice cream macarons, then fluffy pancakes, then Dalgona coffee… food trends rise and then collapse quickly. Gourmet cupcakes had their moment with Crumbs launching an IPO in 2011 which went from $13 all the way to $1.49 when they filed for bankruptcy. Dessert trends? Clearly not the best financial investment.

Rolled ice cream was mostly a novelty, but it paved the way for plenty of industry disruptors.

So is the frozen yogurt you grew up with and loved totally passé?

Well, frozen yogurt also saw a dip in popularity during the pandemic. Nothing was weirder than walking into a froyo shop and not being able to put my hands on the handles or scoop however many chocolate chips I wanted.

Many big name shops were probably already on their way out, but it’s not an uncommon story to hear that concept businesses that relied on customers serving themselves their desired flavors, toppings, and the amounts of both would be shuttered by lockdown and safety mandates. It's kind of hard to fix yourself a cup of froyo when you’re not supposed to touch anything, stay far apart from other customers, and be discouraged from in-person social interaction.

As a result, froyo is at its lowest popularity since 2006.

Frozen yogurt has also been falling out of favor thanks to non-dairy alternatives steamrolling the market. While some chains have adapted to serve dairy-free or fruit-based alternatives, it’s getting harder to market something with the word “yogurt” in it when we just experienced the “year of the oat.” 

The market is adjusting to oat-based and coconut-based ice creams as the norm since at least four in 10 American adults are or live with a plant-based dairy alternative consumer. Of course, there’s fervent pushback from dairy consumers to continue keeping their favorite frozen treats in vogue, but there is certainly a hurdle marketing something that’s old news.

Closing Thoughts

So what can we expect next? If frozen yogurt popularity ebbs and flows in similar cycles, we should be seeing a revival very soon. We might not see celebs running around with Pinkberry cups anymore, but frozen yogurt has solidified itself as a staple. There will always be a made-for-Insta dessert trend, whether it’s a cold treat or not, that will likely try to unseat this cultural icon, but I promise you, froyo will always make its way back. 

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