Zeitgeist: peace out, pinkberry

Peter Jackson

In the summer of 2006, a small store on a steep street in West Hollywood “blew up,” in the words of then-employee Elise Ma. The store’s product was more than popular – it was a necessity. It sold, and sells, frozen yogurt. It is called Pinkberry.

The business is now a chain that has 48 locations in Los Angeles and New York. But its brand of success – a healthier blend of a frozen favorite, topped with fruit and cereals and served in a bright, airy storefront – wasn’t original. Red Mango, a Korean chain, began the fancy fro-yo concept while the American market was still dominated by flourescent standards like TCBY and Tasti D-Lite.

By 2005, a young entrepreneur, Dan Kim, had plans to bring Red Mango’s yogurt – which, unlike Pinkberry’s, has secured the National Yogurt Association’s “Live and Active Cultures” seal – to the United States. The first American Red Mango opened in July 2006, just before a wave of new Pinkberry locations hit the L.A. area that fall. The new franchises cut the wait at the original Pinkberry in West Hollywood – but not the demand for its product.

This yogurt frenzy will reach our streets sometime next month, after a Red Mango opens on Davis Street in early May, if things go as Red Mango CEO Kim predicts. Along with a Naperville location, the Evanston branch will allow the company to gauge Chicago’s appetite for what Kim calls a “healthy indulgence.”

Kim sees opportunity in college towns. He opened his first Red Mango in Westwood, California, UCLA’s Evanston. He likes “trend-setting colleges” with “health-conscious students.” Former Pinkberry staffer Ma, who now attends UCLA, says the clientele at the local Red Mango mostly falls into two groups: Asians and sorority girls (Ma is both Asian and in a sorority).

Some NU fro-yo fans fall into those categories as well. Debbie Myung, a Weinberg freshman from the L.A. area, says she is finally close to shaking her frozen yogurt obsession; she is down from twice a week to once a month. “My friend took me to Pinkberry my senior year of high school,” Myung says. “The first time I had it, I didn’t like it. But by the second time, I was hooked. We call it crackberry.”

Self-proclaimed yogurt enthusiast Jenny Gross is looking forward to the unveiling of Red Mango. From sampling the different treats on the market, the Medill sophomore has learned the nuances defining the brands. “It all kind of tastes like chemicals,” Gross says of Tasti D-Lite. “You can tell it’s a diet-ish food.”

But other fro-yo connoisseurs have already sated their cravings on campus. Weinberg freshman Rachel Ferber, caught buying frozen yogurt in Norris, says she prefers the stuff there and at Sargent to upscale chains. “It tastes kind of sour, and yeah, you can put fruit in it, but it’s $5 for a small,” she says. (Kim says Evanston’s Red Mango will probably charge what it does in L.A., $4.75 for a medium with two toppings.)

Ferber, who is from the New York area, met her roommate Sarah Weissman before school started at – where else? – a Pinkberry in midtown Manhattan. Weissman, a Weinberg freshman, has tried all three of the City’s big chains: Pinkberry, Tasti D-Lite and Red Mango. “They’re very different,” she says, explaining that her preference depends on her mood. Pinkberry and Red Mango are probably healthier, she says, which makes them a better snack. (The roommates keep frozen grapes, Light & Fit yogurts and diet Snapple in their fridge, along with some not-so-healthy indulgences, like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups).

While Ferber thinks it’s possible that the froyo craze is just a fad, Weissman disagrees. “It’s not like Jamba Juice, which peaked, and now everyone’s like, ‘No,’ ” she says. But Kim points to the healthy drink chain as a reason his business will be successful in frigid Chicago. “We looked at how many Jamba Juices there are in Chicago,” he says. “It baffles me how successful that concept is there.” So maybe you can have your yogurt and eat it too.