14775 Jeffrey Road, Suite J, Irvine, CA 92618
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Desserts Favorites Frozen Yogurt Yogurt
"Yogurtland is arguably the most brilliant iteration of the Red Mango concept to date. While Pinkberry is all about control - employee-dispensed - Yogurtland is pure culinary chaos."
There were, we suppose, some people in Buffalo who were legitimately excited by the opening of T.C.B.Y. chain frozen yogurt shop locations years ago, but our admittedly hazy memories suggest otherwise: in this ice cream-loving town, we recall that T.C.B.Y.'s healthy alternative never quite tasted "right," and didn't catch on. For ten or more years thereafter, we thought we knew what frozen yogurt tasted like - ech - and we never sought more out. But over the last few years, the frozen yogurt recipe has fundamentally changed, at least at certain new restaurants, and now rivals or exceeds the appeal of top ice creams. As of today, Western New York doesn't yet have one of these restaurants, but with heavy international backing - including financial support from an executive at Starbucks - it's inevitable that even this challenging area will eventually get an opportunity to enjoy what Californians, Manhattanites, and South Koreans have been lining up for.
The Story: Back in 2002, a store called Red Mango opened in Korea, offering a new formulation of frozen yogurt that had originated in Italy. Rather than offering fifteen different flavors, Red Mango started with two - plain and green tea - and used the idea of topping customization to transform its sweet, simple palettes into colorful stacks of fruits, candies, and even breadfast cereals. There weren't syrups, sundaes, or floats; its cups were frozen yogurt and toppings, nothing more. As it turns out, the combination doesn't need additional elements; the Italian take on frozen yogurt was light while preserving the tart flavor and solid consistency of the unfrozen version, and thanks to some sugar, becomes addicting even if nothing else is added.
Red Mango first sparked local franchising, then an international cloning goldrush. U.S.-based entrepreneurs unapologetically lifted Red Mango's idea and started chains such as Pinkberry, initially based on exactly the same two-flavor plus toppings formula, but adding small local twists. In Southern California, a cadre of mostly Korean-owned Red Mango and Pinkberry wannabes began to appear, including Iceberry, Ce'Fiore, and Kiwiberri, the latter allegedly shuttered after legal threats. Pinkberry was unquestionably the most successful, attracting media attention for its long lines, stylish decor, and celebrity clientele. In early 2008, months after an investment from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Pinkberry introduced a coffee-flavored yogurt, and currently offers smoothies and shaved ice flavored with its yogurts and toppings.
Then, there is Yogurtland, arguably the most brilliant iteration of the Red Mango concept to date. While Pinkberry is all about control - you get an employee-dispensed dollop of yogurt that's hollow in the center, lightly topped by exactly three toppings by default - Yogurtland is pure culinary chaos. You enter a line full of people with one of two sizes of bowls, and walk towards a wall with 16 yogurt dispensers in a row. Each contains a different flavor, and each set of two can be swirled together into a twist. Old standards like vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate are predictable, but then there are the more contemporary cheesecake, green tea, taro, and mango versions.
That's only the beginning. Special "tart" versions of its plain and fruit flavors, including blueberry, pineapple, and strawberry, pack both sweetness and a punch of tangy, decidedly yogurty essence. You can blend as many flavors, in whatever quantity, you desire, though the best combinations stick to categories - a cup of mixed fruity yogurts, or a cup of mint chocolate, espresso, and cookies n' cream. The reason: your next stop is at an elaborate topping bar, which includes a mix of fresh and canned fruits, crushed candies and cookies, nuts and breakfast cereals. You put as many toppings as you want on your mix of yogurts, and then you go to pay. Our favorite combination, perfected over numerous visits, included fresh blueberries, raspberries or blackberries, and pineapple as garnishes to plain tart and blueberry tart yogurts. It had the appearance of healthiness, infrequently giving way to chocolate, coffee, and candied versions when we were in the mood for something heavier.
Thanks to customer customization, and customer assembly, the Yogurtland experience is like going to the ultimate ice cream salad bar - except you can make your dessert healthier than ice cream, or with certain ingredients, much, much worse. It's finished off with one of the most brilliant pricing strategies we've ever seen, simpified in a slogan that employees wear on their shirts: 30 Cents an Ounce. If you do the math, which you initially wouldn't, that's almost $5 per pound, and we can tell you from experience that it's hard to leave a Yogurtland line for much less than $5 per person. With the larger cup, filled with yogurt and toppings, you could quite easily have enough for two people.
If $5 sounds like a lot to pay for a cup of frozen yogurt, consider that Pinkberry charges $8 for its 13 ounce large size - twice Yogurtland's price. The cups may look comparable in pictures, but they're not, and despite the Starbucks investment in Pinkberry, Yogurtland's formula is the definitive winner in our book. Yogurtland currently has plans to be in five states, with a bunch of California and one shop a piece in Hawaii, Nevada, New York and Texas. Pinkberry's in two states, with lots of California and Manhattan locations, but nowhere else. Regardless of which one is better, we'd love to see either one - or a local equivalent - in Buffalo soon.