Frozen yogurt returns to Pittsburgh


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On a humid Monday evening in the South Side, a steady stream of restaurant- and moviegoers trickled into Sincerely Yogurt, gathering around a sleek, oval-shaped glass topping bar at the center of the store, scooping fruits and cookie dough into their frozen yogurt cups.

"I like ice cream a lot, so this is a healthier alternative for me," said Kelsey Slanina, a customer who lives nearby and says she comes once or twice a week, at least. "It's healthier, and you get a little more variety -- you can kind of make it your own."

Pittsburgh-based Sincerely Yogurt is just one chain that has opened locations in the region to capitalize on the frozen yogurt craze. TCBY, which shuttered all of its Allegheny County locations by 2008, has opened three locations in the city in the past year and plans to open six more.

Frozen yogurt first gained traction in the 1980s, when chains like The Country's Best Yogurt (now just TCBY) and I Can't Believe It's Yogurt offered airy, low-fat blends that were supposed to mimic the flavors and taste of full-fat ice cream. By the early '90s, a new wave of cheaper, soft-serve ice cream products were introduced at place like McDonald's, and frozen yogurt lost favor with the public.

The shops now popping up in Pittsburgh and across the nation are skirting frozen yogurt's image problem as a less enjoyable form of ice cream by crafting an entirely novel experience. In its new incarnation, frozen yogurt is known for its tangy taste and ostentatiously low calorie count. (At Sincerely Yogurt, owner John Major said the basic flavor is just 10 calories an ounce.)

Cait Lamberton, a marketing professor at the University of Pittsburgh Katz School of Business, said yogurt's healthful reputation has allowed it to flourish as a national trend.

In her research, Ms. Lamberton has found that once someone classifies a food as healthy -- as many have done with frozen yogurt -- they do not limit their intake, eating the food as often as they like without feeling guilty.

"Frozen yogurt is a safe option," Ms. Lammerton said. "Everyone gets what they want."

Many customers at Sincerely Yogurt said they are especially drawn to frozen yogurt shops for the self-serve layouts, which allows them to control portion size and variety.

So popular, in fact, is the self-serve option that TCBY, which had stuck to its old formula through 2010, has begun converting its locations to self-serve yogurt bars.

According to Port Washington, N.Y.-based consumer research firm NPD Group, frozen yogurt sales in the United States have grown by nearly 130 percent since 2008, when the dessert was mainly available in Los Angeles and New York. Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst at NPD, said much of this growth can be attributed to the pace at which new shops are opening around the country.

In February 2009, Mr. Major, then an employee at a medical device manufacturing company, was vacationing in southern California when he encountered self-serve yogurt shops.

"I thought, 'This was the greatest thing since sliced bread,' " he said. He looked for similar stores in his native Pittsburgh and found that there weren't any.

Just months later, he opened his first Sincerely Yogurt location in Cranberry. By the following spring, it was averaging 700 customers a day.

In fact, he found Pittsburgh so receptive that he began selling franchise rights -- $29,000 per store -- to open more locations around the city.

Now there are 13 Sincerely Yogurt locations in Western Pennsylvania -- the most recent one opened inside PNC Park -- with plans to add more.

Mr. Major also is working with franchisees in West Virginia, North Carolina and Florida to open shops in those states.

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Michelle Hackman: mhackman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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