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'Fro-yo' frenzy hits the Chicago market
By Kim Mikus | Daily Herald Staff

Janette Kim, owner of Very Berry Cafe in Buffalo Grove, is one of the first in the area to offer healthy frozen yogurt, a product of several large chains coming soon to the Chicago market.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Very Berry Cafe's frozen yogurt features live yogurt cultures, or probiotics, and are healthier than recent ice cream substitutes.

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

The Canadian frozen yogurt chain Yogen Fruz plans to open a shop similar to this artists' rendering in several area malls.

 

COURTESY OF YOGEN FRUZ

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Published: 1/20/2008 12:37 AM

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A healthy, tart-tasting frozen yogurt is winding its way into the Chicago area.

After making a huge splash on the East and West coasts, the hip product resembling soft-serve ice cream is set to debut in this market over the next several months.

The frozen yogurt is different than the trendy TCBYs of 1980s in that the new mix actually tastes like yogurt and is healthy. The product set to bombard this area will feature live yogurt cultures, or probiotics, said to aid the digestive process and fight disease. Many are low or nonfat and have very little sugar. Fresh fruit is blended in or drizzled on top.

A handful of entrepreneurs are in the process of offering the fresh treat just as big companies are set to debut at area shopping centers. Red Mango and Pinkberry are big players based in Southern California, where competition is tough. The Los Angeles Times reports there's "fro-yo wars" taking place.

Janette Kim is one of the pioneers to launch the tart treat in the suburbs. She serves the frozen yogurt at VeryBerry Cafe on Dundee Road in Buffalo Grove, where coffee is also featured. Growing up in her family's Korean restaurant business and wanting to start her own venture, she studied the California trend.

"I did a lot of research," said Kim, 34, who noted that actor Leonardo DiCaprio has frozen yogurt machines installed at his home and office.

Competition is close behind.

Yogen Fruz, a veteran of the industry and born in Canada, is set to make its U.S. debut at Woodfield Shopping Center next month. In 1986, brothers Aaron and Michael Surruya were 19 and 20 when they launched the yogurt business in Toronto. It has grown to 1,100 stores in more than 20 countries.

"We lag behind most countries with the yogurt trend," said Jerry Isaccson, charged with leading the Yogen Fruz franchise effort in Illinois. He has plans to open at Gurnee Mills, Westfield Fox Valley and several other malls this year. The Canadian brothers have hired master franchisees to open locations in this market as well as Orlando, Fla., San Francisco and Los Angeles by summer.

Why now? Aaron, now 41, said Yogen Fruz has been monitoring the yogurt palette in the United States for several years.

"America is finally ready for a frozen yogurt that tastes like yogurt," Aaron said.

Experts agree. "I think it's going to take off. I think consumers will be all over this, as long as there's a health connotation," said Bill Bishop of Willard Bishop, a food industry consultancy in Barrington.

He believes consumers' attitudes concerning health have changed and they're looking for healthier alternatives. Bishop added that the TCBY trend focused more on an ice cream substitute rather than a healthy yogurt.

Experts expect fierce competition.

Another player coming to this market is former investment banker Dan Kim, who started Red Mango in South Korea. He has plans to dish up the healthier yogurt in Naperville and Evanston when the weather turns warmer. Opening his first U.S. location last year in California, he now has 20 stores in the states.

"I'm putting my money on the fact that it's time for the wholesome yogurt here," Kim said.

Pinkberry, founded by two Korean-Americans, is a key rival on the coasts also looking at Chicago sites.

Northbrook native Michael Farah, a newcomer to the industry, studied the Pinkberry craze while visiting his father in Los Angeles. He left his job as a crude-oil features trader to study and perfect the concept and plans to open his first Berry Chill at 635 N. State St. in Chicago in February with other yogurt bars close behind.

Farah, 29, prefers to be known as a "yogurteur." Not wanting to confuse his product with TCBY's, he calls his healthy product "chilled yogurt."

"It's the same consistency as soft serve, but it's not watered down and it's a little creamier," he explains.

He says he is the first in the nation to offer a lactose-free option that's 25 calories an ounce, fat free, contains more than a gram of protein and has more calcium than milk. "It's a healthy alternative," Farah said of the 8-ounce serving with three toppings that will cost about $5. Most importantly, he says he will serve authentic yogurt.

He's looking to expand in five cities this year while working on deals with sports stadiums and airports.

Farah said "the whole concept is going to expand big time in the next few years. People in Chicago don't understand how big this is going to get."