The dessert industry calls it "the second coming of frozen yogurt."
Suburban ice cream businesses call it competition.
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How do they match up nutritionally?Nutritional content varies by brand and flavor, but based on a one-cup serving of these desserts, frozen yogurt had less fat -- and comparable amounts of calories and sugar.
Ice cream, Baskin Robbins chocolate
340 calories; 20 grams of fat; 38 grams of sugar
Frozen yogurt, Red Mango dark chocolate
200 calories; 1 gram of fat; 46 grams of sugar
Frozen custard, Culver's chocolate*
294 calories; 14 grams of fat; 29 grams of sugar
* measured as a 140-gram scoop
Source: Company website nutritional information
Dozens of bright, new, self-serve frozen yogurt stores have popped up across the suburbs in the past year, prompting local mom-and-pop ice cream shops to keep a slightly nervous eye on the lines of people snaking out of the newcomers' doors.
Ice cream businesses have endured competition from other buzzed-about frozen desserts before, like gelato, frozen custard and Italian ice. This time, though, there's some uncertainty over whether the new frozen yogurt store concept -- revived and improved from the 1980s -- has staying power, or if it's just a fad that's quickly oversaturating the suburban Chicago market.
"In the industry, we're all kind of scratching out heads, saying, what will this bring? Do they have longevity? I don't know," said Katie Dix, co-owner of Capannari's Ice Cream in Mount Prospect, who said sales have remained strong but she's lost some soccer party bookings to the new frozen yogurt businesses.
MaggieMoo's Ice Cream in Naperville added scoopable low-fat yogurt to the menu this summer to stay competitive, but franchise owner Diane Jacobsen said premium ice cream is still, by far, her best seller.
"Fads come and go. Ice cream is a stable item," Jacobsen said. "Everyone wants to try the new thing."
The suburbs' new "fro yo" businesses are a mix of national chains -- such as Yogen Früz, Red Mango, Yogurtland and Menchie's -- and independently owned stores, like Berry Yo in Arlington Heights, Swirl Cup in Lincolnshire, YoYo Land in Wheaton and Spirels Yogurt Delites in South Elgin.
In most new stores, the low-fat yogurt is offered in a dozen flavors, including a sugar-free version, in a create-your-own, cafeteria-style line. Customers start by pouring as much yogurt as they want in a cup, then moving to a salad bar-like area with toppings like sliced fruit, cookie dough bites or fresh whipped cream. At Swirl Cup, for example, there are nearly 40 "dry" toppings, including homemade chocolate chip cookies and cake roll, in addition to hot fudge and other liquid add-ons.
The price is based on weight, which according to one industry publication, is between 40 and 50 cents per ounce.
A healthier choice?
Frozen yogurt business owners say their low-fat, lighter tasting, probiotic-filled product is a healthier choice than ice cream. In can be, says American Dietetic Association registered dietitian Melissa Joy Dobbins, but it depends on portion size and topping choices.
"If you're choosing your toppings wisely, it can be a very reasonable choice," she said. "But (some people) add a dessert on top of their dessert. Let's not kid ourselves here."
The self-serve concept keeps costs down, both to the business and the consumer, and the create-your-own experience is a big draw for customers, said Amit Kleinberger, CEO of the booming chain Menchie's, which opened a store in Mount Prospect earlier this month. Since launching five years ago, Menchie's has opened 190 businesses in four countries.
"Today, taking your child to self-serve frozen yogurt, he interacts with the store in a way that he's never done before. He gets to do everything himself. And it can be completely different each time," Kleinberger said.
Business owners believe, for now, there's enough business to keep everyone afloat. But it remains to be seen if the new frozen yogurt stores will be a long-term problem for traditional ice cream shops. Kleinberger says they are.
"The days of ice cream in America are counted," he said. "Every large chain in ice cream will disappear for a simple reason: It doesn't make sense. We are offering you a better product in a far superior environment."
Ridiculous, says Linda Utterback, executive director of the Elk Grove Village-based National Ice Cream Retailers Association.
"People will go in (to the frozen yogurt stores) and try it. But a lot of people will go back to the ice cream store," she said. "Ice cream is going to be the most popular frozen dessert no matter what. Consumption is not down. Sales are going crazy."
Restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs, of NPD Group in Rosemont, agrees. While the number of servings of frozen yogurt rose 9 percent between March 2011 and March 2012, the demand for ice cream still far outpaces the demand for frozen yogurt, especially in the Midwest.
"The Midwest likes its ice cream," she said.
Ice cream has a "restaurant importance" of 3.4 percent of all orders, compared to 0.2 percent for frozen yogurt, according to NPD Group's data.
Riggs sees frozen yogurt business in a jump-on-the-bandwagon phase that has less to do with healthy eating and more to do with the "new" dessert experience and the fresh food trend.
"In today's world, when we go out to eat, we're looking for entertainment," she said.
What's old is new
"Fro yo" first became a hot trend in the 1980s, when TCBY introduced its unique product in malls and airports around the country. Other companies followed, but the fro yo trend largely faded away by the 1990s. TCBY survived and still has more than 400 locations worldwide, including several in suburban malls.
Now that frozen yogurt is seeing a resurgence, suburban sweet tooths are being lured back to the dessert once again.
"So many people think it's ice cream. They don't care," Swirl Cup owner Kathryn Barkulis said. "It's good for everybody. Everybody loves dessert, whether it's ice cream or yogurt."