Driving home with a car full of hungry children, Lisa Vipperman often detours to take the kids out for a snack. But she doesn’t pull into a fast food joint. Instead, she takes them for yogurt. And they couldn’t be more excited. That’s because they often stop at Tutti Frutti, a “fro-yo” (short for frozen yogurt) shop in Columbia’s Vista, where 14 ever-changing flavors of yogurt and a multitude of toppings offer nearly endless possibilities for sweet, creamy snacking. The fact that the soft-serve yogurt is self-serve — customers fill their own cups from wall-mounted dispensers — makes it even better. “They love it, and it’s fun for them to mix up exactly what they want,” she says. “The atmosphere is so cheerful that they end up dancing and singing. And I love being able to have so many flavors.”
She’s not alone. Paralleling a national trend, self-serve frozen yogurt shops are springing up all over Columbia — at last count there are six in Columbia and Forest Acres, with a seventh opening soon in Five Points. “Yogurt has really caught on as an ice cream alternative,” says Dr. Marianne Bickle, director of the Center for Retailing at USC’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sports Management. “People are looking for healthier things to do with their kids, and frozen yogurt fits that need.” Kids aren’t the only ones scooping up fro-yo. Since it’s sold by the ounce — cups are weighed at the cash register — frozen yogurt can be a diet-supporting treat for anyone with the willpower to turn off the spigot when the portion is still reasonable. “Self-serve is perfect when I want just a taste of something sweet because I can control how much I’m getting,” says Liz McMillan, who occasionally pops into the new TCBY on Gervais Street. “For me, eating all of just a bit is a lot easier than trying to eat half of a full serving.”
Courtesy of Katie McElveen
And just how healthy is fro-yo? Although most frozen yogurt does contain live and active cultures — those good-for-you bacteria often called probiotics — along with a bit of calcium and protein, healthfulness really depends on what you put into your cup. With the exception of Only 8, an eight-calorie-per-ounce yogurt available at 32 Degrees in Trenholm Plaza, calories range from about 20 per ounce for a no-fat, no sugar version to 30 or so for low-fat, candy-based flavors. Top your creation with fresh berries and get a fiber and antioxidant boost. Hot fudge and gummi bears, while delicious, don’t offer much in the way of nutrition, but cereal can be a good middle of the road option. In figuring out the calories in a yogurt serving, ask to have it weighed pre-topping and multiply the ounces by the calories-per-ounce signs posted near the dispensers.
It isn’t just a focus on more healthful eating that’s driving the move to fro-yo. It tastes good — really, really good — and there are enough flavors out there to make any mouth happy. Part of a national chain, Tutti Frutti opened on Lincoln Street in the Vista in November. Inside the chic, airy spot, standard temptations like chocolate and vanilla share space with “gotta-try-em” flavors like cookies and cream or chocolate peanut butter. There are also exotic tastes like taro and sweet red bean, several no-sugar-added yogurts and, with a nod to yogurt’s tangy roots, a couple of tart choices. In all, the shop offers 14 choices every day from a universe of 70. According to owner Sung Oh, Nutella, a rich blend of chocolate and hazelnut, is the top seller. Like all of Columbia’s frozen yogurt establishments, Tutti Frutti allows customers to fill tiny tasting cups with samples of as many flavors as they’d like to try. “If they try the exotic flavors, they usually end up liking them,” says Sung.
It was a trip to Dallas that got Brian Glynn, who owns two area Yumilicious shops in Columbia and Lexington, on the fro-yo bandwagon. “A friend took us to the original Yumilicious, and we really thought the concept could work in Columbia,” he recalls. “The shop was set up more like a lounge or a coffee house than a traditional ice cream shop, and I liked the way it appealed to both kids and adults. It was something I hadn’t seen before, and it really struck me.” Brian, who owns Columbia’s two Village Idiot pizza restaurants as well, also was impressed with the yogurt. “As a restaurant owner, I understand how higher quality ingredients can affect the end product. Yumilicious spent a lot to get their yogurt just right, and it shows.” Like Tutti Frutti, Yumilicious offers 14 flavors each day. Brian is particularly proud of the tart flavors, which deliver a gentle pucker without being too sour and none of the chalkiness that’s found in some brands. According to Brian, the company’s tart avocado yogurt is one of the top sellers in Columbia, as is cake batter, chocolate and salty-sweet peanut butter.
Perched on the high-traffic corner of Blossom and Main streets, Columbia’s first frozen yogurt shop, Yoghut, is also the only establishment that’s not part of a national chain. Opened in June 2010 by Shafen Khan and R.K. Khan, his father, Yoghut has turned into a hangout for USC students, who swirl cups of “Garnet Velvet” (a play on red velvet cake), Cake Batter and the shop’s top seller, Tart, with strawberries and granola, and enjoy them on the outside patio. The shop has been so successful that the Khans opened a second Yoghut in Forest Plaza in 2011 and a third location in Harbison in March. “Self-serve frozen yogurt was just getting started in California when I was living there,” recalls Shafen. “It came up in a conversation one day with my dad. After looking into it, we decided that it would be a great family business for us.” They were right. Even with all the competition, Yoghut always has a crowd, especially in the evening. “We used to close at 9 p.m. but now we stay open until 11 p.m.,” says Shafen.
And what’s the future of fro-yo? Brian thinks there’s still plenty of room for growth. “We get people in every day who have never tried self-serve,” he says. “Right now, the more shops the better — it advertises the concept. If they try one, they might try others!”