Pinkberry Flirts With Self-Serve in Two Southern California Shops

May 27, 2015

By Nancy Luna/Staff Writer

For several months, Pinkberry has been quietly testing self-serve machines in at least two Southern California locations.

Pinkberry, credited for launching the modern-day frozen yogurt craze, is testing self-serve machines in two Southern California locations.

The do-it-yourself experiment has been ongoing for months at shops in Brea and Burbank. A Pinkberry official played down the test, which comes a few years after Chief Executive Ron Graves said he would never play the self-serve card.

“Leapfrogging the competition requires you to know and be true to your brand as well as deeply understand your competition,” Pinkberry spokeswoman Laura Jakobsen told the Register this week. “This is research – you can only learn so much by observing.”

At the Pinkberry on Imperial Highway in Brea, the store offers 10 flavors at 49 cents an ounce. The front counter has a bar, where customers can choose from an assortment of fruit and candy toppings.

By comparison, a nearby Yogurtland in Brea had a menu of 16 different flavors at 41 cents an ounce.

In Burbank, the self-serve option has been around a year, while Brea converted in December. Jakobsen said Pinkberry has no plans to convert more shops.

“We opened the self-serve stores to gain insights from both a consumer and operational perspective,” Jakobsen said. “We are not considering converting more locations.”

Darren Tristano, a restaurant consultant for market research firm Technomic, said five years ago that premium frozen yogurt chains like Pinkberry “would have great competition from self-serve fro-yo brands” in a post-recession economy.

“There is no surprise that Pinkberry would test and consider replacing or adding self serve to their concept,” Tristano said. “The affordable price points of weigh-and-pay as well as the labor savings is a strong driver for change within the market.”

Though brands such as Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt have been around for more than 30 years, Pinkberry is considered a pioneer in the category.

When Pinkberry debuted 10 years ago, it elevated the frozen yogurt category with its slick presentation and tart-heavy fruit flavors. Pinkberry now has 250 shops in 21 countries.

Copycat brands have since saturated the market, including Yogurtland, Tutti Frutti and Cherry on Top. To differentiate themselves, many adopted the self-serve model. Their popularity soared among consumers who enjoy controlling how their food is prepared.

“The trend in consumer control demonstrated by build-your-own formats is the next generation of customization,” Tristano said.

Irvine-based Yogurtland launched its first self-serve store in Fullerton in 2006. It now has about 300 stores in the U.S., Australia, Guam, Thailand, Venezuela and Dubai.

When asked in 2012 about the popularity of self-serve froyo, Pinkberry’s Graves told Inc. magazine that he refused to “go self-serve.”

“Why? Because that would be letting the competition define us,” he said.

History shows it could also be brand suicide.

In 2012, Rancho Santa Margarita-based Golden Spoon tested self-serve in a handful of Southern California stores. At the time, the chain said it would eventually convert at least 40 locations to the trendier do-it-yourself shops.

But after its loyal customers balked at the messiness of self-serve, the chain halted those plans.

“Sanitation was a key issue,” Chief executive Roger Clawson told the Register in 2013. “Our core customer demands full service.”

Outside the Spoon

March 12, 2014

outside-spoonFrozen-yogurt concept looks beyond sweet treats for menu expansion.

The buzz behind frozen yogurt may be waning, but Red Mango Frozen Yogurt & Smoothies is one brand that won’t be limited by its category. The Dallas-based chain began testing a café concept at several Houston and Long Island, New York, area franchises.

The concept, called Red Mango Café, features an expanded menu of healthy flatbreads, salads, and wraps, says Jim Notarnicola, the company’s vice president of marketing and franchising.

Expanded menus are increasingly popular at specialized concepts like frozen-yogurt franchises, says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for The NPD Group. “They’ve already got the real estate, they’re already open for business, and they have the customers, so now they can offer them something more,” she says.

Launched in the fall, Red Mango Café features six flatbread items that offer diners a savory experience with less than 350 calories. The salads are topped with natural dressings, and for cold winter months, the café serves a line of hearty soups. Some locations also offer specialty juice products.

Because Red Mango has always positioned its frozen yogurt as a healthy alternative rather than a sugary treat, the expanded menu has been well received, Notarnicola says. “Our customers are telling us it made sense to them that we would be adding these kinds of products, and it gives them another reason to come back in a different daypart,” he says.

While Red Mango doesn’t share sales numbers, Notarnicola says, results confirm the concept is moving in the right direction.

More menu choices can help units grow market share, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic. “The frozen-yogurt business has become very competitive. There are not only a number of chains but also a lot of independent entrants, so as a result, it’s getting more difficult to be successful,” he says. “Broadening the menu seems to be a way these brands can grow their revenue.”

Focusing on Fresh Foods

April 18, 2013

sandwichThe grab-and-go business is constantly evolving. Today’s customers not only want their foodservice fast, but they expect quality, consistency and healthy daypart options.

Convenience store operators are driving sales of healthy, portable foodservice offerings like packaged sandwiches, wraps, salads and some roller grill items. But, historically, the industry has seldom gotten the attention it deserves for its healthy food options. Changing that perception, and making consumers aware of the healthy items c-stores carry will take some effort.

T. W. MacDermott, president and principal of the Clarion Group in Kingston, N.H., pointed out that most c-stores have a high level of repeat business from their immediate surrounding area and commuters who stop for gas or coffee en route to work. Thus, it should be relatively easy to communicate any new initiative to them with minimal effort and expense.

“The trick is to make sure that the healthy foods being offered are really healthy, and especially fresh,” MacDermott said. “There can be no shortcutting on quality, or the store will sell its product only once.”

Ready-to-eat sandwiches, fresh fruit, packaged salads, fruit cups, yogurt cups and other foods that a customer may pick up to take for lunch at work are extremely popular. “The operator will need to either find a supplier of the fresh foods or maybe partner with a nearby restaurant or caterer whose label on the fresh products will be an assurance of quality to customers and a helpful ad for the provider,” MacDermott said.

Fresh Returns
Another major difference between jumping from retail to foodservice that could cause problems for inexperienced operators is handling products with a short shelf life.

“A whole different mindset is required when it comes to working with perishable products. This is an area that convenience stores need to understand and perfect to boost fresh grab-and-go sales,” MacDermott said. “It’s better to throw expired food out, or donate items nearing their spoilage date to a food bank. The loss will be more than offset by growing repeat sales if customers know that whatever they buy is fresh—no more than 36 hours old.”

Letting consumers know about the guaranteed freshness and food donations can also engender confidence, good will and additional repeat business.

To ensure the high turnover that healthy, fresh products require in order to be profitable, the products should be rotated at frequent intervals and kept in a separate, distinctive refrigerated display case, Mac Dermott suggested. If possible, it should also adjoin a display of non-refrigerated healthy products, such as granola bars and the like.
If possible, said Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York City, “list ingredients, sources and method of preparation next to each item. Customer can never have too much information about the quality of the food they are eating.”

While retailers are naturally sensitive to pricing, convenience stores don’t necessarily have to worry about competing with supermarkets when it comes to fresh grab-and-go foods.

“Customers stop at convenience stores because they are convenient, not because they’re bargain hunting. That is a strategy they can use to their advantage,” MacDermott said.

Going to Market
As foodservice becomes more of a convenience store industry staple, effectively marketing quality and freshness will only enhance the offering.

“The industry needs to decide how it wants people to think about it,” said Ryan Mathews, founder and CEO of Detroit-based Black Monk Consulting. “One can make the claim of convenience, or, one can make the claim of health. But making compound claims—like healthy and convenient—is always tricky.”

Mathews posed the question: Is the industry willing to invest in a long-term mass-marketing reimaging campaign? “I doubt it,” he said, “and I really doubt it would be worth it. A better tactic is to promote healthy options in store and to convert the market one customer at a time.”

There is, as Mathews pointed out, a danger inherent in foodservice marketing, as well. “Every time a retailer pats himself on the back for offering ‘healthy’ solutions somebody is always anxious to challenge those claims—such as Arby’s current anti-Subway campaign—or to look deeper into the product portfolio to see if the health claims holds up across the store,” Mathews said. “The best plan is to continue to offer better-for-you choices, save the mass marketing dollars and do the absolute best job you can serving your customers.”

Defining Healthy
Customers are correct that there is a barrier to offering healthy foods in c-stores, according to Tim Powell, director of research and consulting services for Chicago-based Technomic Inc.

“The majority of regular consumers just stare at you incredulously when you ask them the importance of health and wellness when selecting prepared foods in the segment—especially when they are holding a double-sausage mini pizza in one hand and a bear claw in the other,” Powell said.

Despite that, Powell noted that there is still a need to offer healthy fare in the form of fresh-cut fruit, salads, grilled and fewer fried products. “Industry leaders in foodservice like Wawa, Sheetz and Rutter’s have developed a tolerance for waste and accepted that if you offer fresh foods consistently, eventually—as new customers walk through the doors, especially females—you will eliminate the perception that only old hot dogs and burnt coffee are awaiting them.”

The bottom line, Powell said, is that the convenience store chains that will be successful with their foodservice programs must evolve into offering healthier items. “Others will simply perpetuate the perception of a gas station with food if they don’t expand and rotate menus,” he said.

Defining exactly what “healthy” means to consumers was the subject of some recent Technomic research. While Americans have obviously become much more health-conscious, their perceptions of what is considered healthy eating at restaurants are continually changing. Contemporary definitions of health are strongly associated with local, natural, organic and sustainable ingredients. Consumers are also taking more of a balanced and personal approach to healthy eating, seeking out better-for-you foods, while enjoying occasional indulgences.

“More consumers than ever before tell us that eating healthy and paying attention to nutrition is important,” said Darren Tristano, vice president of Technomic. “However, there’s a shift happening in terms of what actually defines healthy for them. We’re seeing more consumers gravitate toward health-halo claims, such as local, natural and organic, as well as whole wheat.”

Sandra Matheson, president of Food Systems Consulting Inc., said that convenience store operators also need to identify that they have choices available throughout the store. “Not just junk food, but something for everyone. And they need to have deals on their healthier items to get people to try them,” she said.

Convenience retailers also need for their offerings to match their message. “If they say their food is healthy, it needs to be truly fresh and healthy,” Matheson said. “In my experience, I have visited sites that advertised healthy foods, but found their foods loaded with salt. Some weren’t even fresh. The more fresh fruits and vegetables you can get on the menu the better. Perception goes a long way when customers see these items near the food counter.”

But most importantly for c-stores to remember is that this can be regarded as the c-store industry’s golden age of foodservice. The time to build your business is right now.
“If c-stores don’t seize the opportunity in front of them, they are foolish,” said Karen Malody, the principal of Culinary Options, a foodservice consultancy in Seattle. “It’s hard work and they will likely need to engage some foodservice experts to help them think differently, but the opportunity to grow sales is enormous.”

This is Sweet; Forever Yogurt Feeds a Fad that Just Won’t End: Self-Serve Frozen Yogurt

December 26, 2012

(c) 2012 Crain Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Truth be told, Forever Yogurt co-founders Mandy Calara and Ahmad Yilmaz don’t even like frozen yogurt all that much. Luckily for them, a lot of Chicagoans—and investors—do.

Forever Yogurt, which has six Chicago-area locations, one in Madison, Wis., a seasonal trailer at North Avenue Beach and a Chicago food truck, plans to open 32 more stores throughout the country in the next four months. The company also has signed a 20-store franchise agreement to bring Forever Yogurt to Pakistan and is in advanced talks with a private-equity firm to raise $6 million and expand even further, both domestically and in China.

For skeptics who have watched frozen yogurt shops proliferate across the city, often within sight of competitors, Forever Yogurt’s expansion seems to defy logic. A brief spin through yields at least 24 similarly named purveyors, from Berrymoon to ZBerry, that serve nearly identical flavors and toppings in generically bright, modern stores. Mr. Yilmaz, Forever Yogurt’s chief brand officer, says the company has at least 20 competitors.

But the probiotic-tinged craze, which started in 2007, is still trending upward. For the year ended in September, 138 million servings of frozen yogurt were ordered at food-service outlets, up 12 percent from last year, which was up 8 percent from 2010, according to NPD Group, a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y.

Some of those sales are coming at the expense of ice cream, says Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food industry consultancy. Frozen yogurt sales are at roughly $1 billion in the overall $6 billion frozen-dessert market, he says.

“The marriage between the health benefits of frozen yogurt—one-third less fat, lower sugar, active cultures—and the experience of self-serve created this mushroom cloud,” says Tom Vogel, director of sales at YoCream, a Portland, Ore.-based manufacturer of yogurt used by many chains.


Though tart frozen yogurts from chains like Dallas-based Red Mango already were established in Chicago, Messrs. Calara, 36, and Yilmaz, 29, were the first to allow customers to control the amount of their serving. The result? At least one customer who shelled out $14 for a cup that weighed almost 2 pounds.

Mr. Calara, the company’s franchise CEO, says he plans to open 50 corporate locations and 250 franchises nationally over the next three years. Because there’s so much competition in the frozen yogurt and ice cream industry, Mr. Calara acknowledges that Forever Yogurt has to move quickly. He also hopes to persuade struggling mom-and-pop ice cream shops to convert to Forever Yogurt franchises and unify the fragmented market.

So far, the money is good. Each store, he says, costs about $300,000 to build out, including about $100,000 to install the seven yogurt machines that allow people to serve themselves. But each pulls in $500,000 to $1 million annually, according to Mr. Calara. After doubling its locations and revenue in each of the past two years, Forever Yogurt raked in more than $4 million in 2012 and employs 89 mostly part-time workers. Mr. Calara projects $19 million in revenue next year.

Messrs. Calara and Yilmaz met through mutual friends seven years ago. Mr. Calara was a University of Illinois at Chicago alum and a former professional poker player; Mr. Yilmaz was a political science graduate student at the University of Chicago who had a passion for graphic design.

In 2007, they launched, a social networking site that encouraged people to sign in to nightlife spots so users could see a location’s male/female ratio before arriving. Though checking in online has become almost instinctive today, the idea hadn’t gained traction five years ago. “I think we had seven or eight users and $49 in revenue” in less than a year in business, Mr. Calara says half-jokingly.

They encountered the self-serve frozen yogurt phenomenon in Scottsdale, Ariz., where they had a vacation rental business. They set up their first shop on North Avenue in Bucktown in 2010.

Mr. Tristano says frozen yogurt will continue to grow for at least a few more years. That’s not forever, of course, but it’s long enough to build a good-size chain.

Crain Communications, Inc.

Frozen Yogurt Sales Heat Up

November 12, 2012

Copyright 2012. Hearst Communications, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Distributed by NewsBank Inc.  

 It’s a flurry of frozen yogurt.

 The tart yet tasty dessert has trickled down from New York City and Boston and businesses are moving into the Capital Region.

 “It’s creamy, it’s fruity, it’s flavorful and — being healthy — it’s a home run,” said Bill Rabbitt, director of operations for TCBY in the Capital Region.

 Frozen yogurt spreads to Troy with the Friday opening of Dante’s Frozen Yogurt at 274 River St.

 “It’s exploding everywhere right now,” said David Fusco, owner of Dante’s, which also has a store in Boston. He said he chose the Collar City because of the three colleges nearby and the support of local government for new businesses.

 Nationally, the frozen yogurt market was estimated to be worth $723 million in 2011 by IBISWorld, a California-based market research publisher.

 Growth is expected to slow as the market becomes saturated, although it’s expected to hit $813 million by 2016.

 Frozen yogurt stores mainly offer self-serve options in which customers pick a container and fill it with as much or as little frozen yogurt as they like, with several flavors and combinations to choose from. They then pick from dozens of toppings ranging from M&Ms to fresh raspberries and granola.

 The dessert is weighed and priced by the ounce.

 Including Dante’s, at least six stores are opening around the area this summer.

 Salt Lake City-based TCBY opened a store in Guilderland in November 2011 and opened another in Latham earlier this year, with plans for two more in Niskayuna and East Greenbush in August and September.

 Plum Dandy has been in Saratoga Springs since June 2010 and owner Philip Levitas said he plans to open a second store in the region this fall. Crossgates Mall has two frozen yogurt stores. Yo D. Sert opened in May, and Yeh! Frozen Yogurt and Cafe, a Montreal-based chain, opened in June.

 Lemondrop Frozen Yogurt set up shop on Wolf Road in Colonie in late June and 16 Handles in Clifton Park opened its doors in March 2011.

 Why is it so popular?

 Frozen yogurt “caters to the health-conscious trend that we’re seeing among consumers,” said Nikoleta Panteva, a senior analyst at IBISWorld. The product generally has low-calorie, low-sugar and non-dairy options and includes probiotics, which can help with digestion and boost the immune system.

 “It has yogurt in it and not ice cream, so there’s a feeling that it’s better for you,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based consulting and research firm. He said the biggest demographic for the market is women from 16 to 34 years old.

 Tristano said frozen yogurt also does well because customers can do everything themselves — dishing it out and piling on their favorite toppings.

 “You pay for what you want to eat, not what you got,” he said.

 John Hadcock owns the Clifton Park 16 Handles with his wife and said they have been doing well. “It’s been very busy,” he said. “When we first opened we had lines to the door every night.”

 He said though the suburban town has “been good” to the store, which is part of a New York City-based franchise, “it’s not New York City. You can’t have one on every corner.”

 Hadcock said it may be a challenge to continue operating with so much competition popping up.

 “Hopefully we’ve done enough to stay,” he said.

New Food Concepts Flood Market

July 10, 2012

John Vomhof Jr., 8 June 2012, Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

John Mallon and Randy Carmody launched Freeziac three years ago, looking to get in on the frozen-yogurt fad that was taking the West Coast by storm. Now the frozen-yogurt chain has five locations and another that’s slated to open soon.

“I think there could be well over 100 yogurt shops in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area before it reaches its peak,” Mallon said. “I think this is taking the place of the neighborhood ice cream shop.”

Chaska-based Freeziac isn’t the only player eyeing the market, though. The frozen yogurt segment has exploded in the Twin Cities over the past few years, with national and local chains snatching up dozens of storefronts throughout the metro area.

The rapid growth of the frozen-yogurt category and another hot, national trend — the rise of fast-casual sandwich shops — are helping fuel activity in the local retail real estate market. However, skeptics doubt whether all of the new concepts can survive.

“I’m not an expert on yogurt, but this feels a lot like the bagel wars of the 1990s, when there were a bunch of players jumping into the market at the same time,” said Chris Simmons, senior vice president of retail for Colliers International’s Minneapolis office. “As far as I know, Brueggers and Einstein Bros. are the only ones left. Most of the other ones only had one or two stores before they left and went home.”

Frozen yogurt

Self-serve yogurt stores have expanded rapidly over the past few years, generally outperforming the broader restaurant industry amid the slow economic recovery. The trend, which started in California with chains such as Pinkberry Inc., has taken off thanks to increasingly health-conscious consumers and the appeal of customization. The chains offer a wide variety of yogurt flavors and toppings, including fruit, nuts and candy.

The frozen yogurt segment still accounts for just a fraction of the $6.05 billion per year frozen-desserts restaurant category, which is dominated by Edina-based International Dairy Queen Inc.’s $2.45 billion in annual U.S. sales. But analysts say yogurt is starting to steal some market share.

Locally, there are now dozens of yogurt shops in a category that was virtually nonexistent several years ago. The players include:

• Bloomington-based Leeann Chin Inc.’s Red Cherry, which has 35 locations inside Leeann Chin restaurants.

• Broken Arrow, Okla.-based CherryBerry, which has 10 Minnesota stores and 10 more coming soon.

• Freeziac, which has five shops and one more coming soon.

• Salt Lake City-based TCBY Enterprises Inc., which has three locations.

• Yogurt Labs, which has a shop near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis and has plans for new locations at the IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis and at 50th & France in Edina.

Two of the biggest national chains, Yogurtland Franchising Inc. and Pinkberry, aren’t even in the Twin Cities yet. Two other top players, Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt and Red Mango Inc., only have one location each.

So while it may seem that Minnesota has suddenly become inundated with yogurt chains, the market actually is well behind the curve on this trend, said Darren Tristano, senior vice president for Chicago restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc.

“In a state like California, we might be starting to see some saturation, but the vast majority of the U.S. hasn’t hit that point yet,” he said. “In fact, many cities are just starting to experience it for the first time.”

While there are many competitors jockeying for space at the same time, Tristano notes that the real estate and labor costs for self-service shops are relatively low. Therefore, a store can be profitable on only a few hundred thousand dollars in sales.

“Some chains will emerge as the clear winners, but the market can support quite a few,” he said.

Frozen-yogurt shops also appeal to franchisees because they’re typically considered “semi-absentee” businesses, said Mike Welch, president of FranNet Minnesota. That means the owner doesn’t have to be on site all of the time.

“They look at it as an investment tool,” he said. “It’s just in lieu of a 401(k) that’s just languishing in the market.”

The key is for franchisees to pick the chains with the strongest business fundamentals in place that point to long-term sustainability.

“There’s absolutely risk, but it’s all about doing the appropriate due diligence,” he said. “If the track is laid well and you’re a good runner, you’re going to make it.”

Sandwich shops

Another hot, national trend that’s starting to take hold in the Twin Cities is the expansion of fast-casual sandwich shops. Firehouse Subs, Which Wich and Jersey Mike’s all have entered the market last year, targeting a segment somewhere between Subway and Panera — and they’re all seeking to grow rapidly.

The sandwich trend is similar to what has happened in other categories in recent years with Chipotle in the Mexican category and chains such as Five Guys and Smashburger in the burger category.

Jacksonville, Fla.-based Firehouse Restaurant Group Inc. opened its first Twin Cities location in Maplewood last August, and has said it hopes to open 54 stores in the Twin Cities within 10 years. It’s the nation’s seventh-largest sandwich chain, with 477 units and more than $284.6 million in sales.

“This is a sandwich for foodies,” said Ron Harris, Firehouse’s area representative for the Minneapolis market. “You pay a little more, but you get more for your money. We give you more meat and our sandwiches taste great.”

Dallas-based Which Wich Inc. opened its first Minnesota store in Blaine last summer. It now has four locations in the market and plans for more.

“It will be competitive, but I think there’s room for more than just Subway out there,” said Garrett Ebling, an Interstate 35W bridge collapse survivor who owns the Blaine location and will open a store in Maple Grove next month.

Manasquan, N.J.-based Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems Inc. has locations in Coon Rapids and St. Anthony Village. Area director John Griparis, who owns those stores, said the company hopes to eventually have five or six franchisees with a total of 50 restaurants in the Twin Cities.

Of course, those new players will face plenty of competition in the market from chains such as Subway, Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich Shop, Davanni’s, Quiznos, Potbelly Sandwich Works, Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shop and Cousins Subs Sandwich Shops. The overall U.S. sandwich segment grew 4 percent to $24.09 billion in 2011. Subway’s $11.4 billion in annual sales account for 47 percent of the market.

“That segment actually does concern me a little bit,” Welch said, pointing to competition, relatively high startup costs and labor demands. “A sub shop can cost more than $500,000, and there’s no direct correlation between what the investment is and what the franchisee can expect in return.”

American City Business Journals

BUMMER: Turns Out Froyo Can Make You Fat, Too

July 5, 2012

Rachel Pomerance, U.S. News & World Report, Jun. 6, 2012

It hardly seems possible that yet another funky frozen yogurt shop could open its doors.

Especially when it’s practically spitting distance from a fresh competitor drawing droves of devotees.

But the latest incarnation of the frozen yogurt trend seems to defy standard business logic. These shops, where the decor of bright, happy hues is matched only by the spray of toppings—kiwi! Fruity Pebbles! something random and chewy!—has whet consumers’ appetites for indulgent fun.

Especially when that fun is packaged in a way that promises to deliver a yummy, guiltless treat and, in some cases, health benefits like better immunity and digestion.

So, is the new yogurt healthy? Or are we all just lining up for candy like kids on Halloween? Well, that depends.

“I think there’s a health halo around frozen yogurt,” and that’s helping to market the trend, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the food research and consulting firm Technomic. “I think there’s some truth to it,” he says, but warned that excessive portions and toppings derail the benefit.

Sticking to reasonable portions is, of course, critical to a healthy diet. And that reasoning clearly applies to the frozen yogurt trend as shops often feature self-serve machines and are accompanied by a smorgasbord of sugary toppings.

Here’s the strategy taken by David Katz, a nutrition expert and clinical instructor of medicine at Yale University, when visiting the Peachy Keen fro-yo shop where his daughter works: “I tend to take less yogurt (usually tart or fat-free fruit), and lots of fresh fruit,” Katz writes in an email to U.S. News. “If the dose is moderate, [it makes] a nice treat—but overindulgence could certainly come back to haunt you in the mirror!”

Still, the current trend in frozen yogurt, which features tart and so-called “natural” flavors and, now, the wildly popular Greek yogurt, offers some healthier dessert options.

In fact, today’s frozen yogurt trend is something of a reclamation. Rather than the sweet fro-yo of 20 years ago, which aimed to mimic ice cream, “what you’re seeing right now is more about the yogurt—a product that is focused on delivering that tart yogurt flavor, and it’s also about a product that’s healthier,” says Elise Cortina Fennig, spokesperson for the National Yogurt Association.

Whatever it is, it’s working. Between the fall of 2010 and the fall of 2011, the number of retail frozen yogurt shops in this country climbed from 3,624 to 4,765—a 31 percent spike. According to Tristano, sales reported by frozen dessert shops, in general, have hovered at $6 billion per year, but “consumers have just shifted from ice cream to frozen yogurt.” Frozen yogurt chains, in fact, have experienced some of the highest growth of any of the chains he tracks.

Novelty accounts for part of the frozen yogurt craze, says Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for The Dannon Company, which now owns YoCream, a market leader. (Neuwirth, incidentally, says he passed two frozen yogurt shops within three blocks of New York’s Upper East Side while speaking with U.S. News.)

But another factor is economic. Times of high unemployment beget a rise in entrepreneurship, and frozen yogurt shops are largely a band of small businesses, he says.

The range of offerings available in these shops makes any blanket judgment hard to support, except for this one—that to be called yogurt, Fennig says it must contain two strains of beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics: streptococcus thermophilus and lactobacillus bulgaricus, which produce lactase, easing digestion for those who are lactose intolerant.

Her group is pressing the Food and Drug Administration to codify a standard of identity for yogurt, but until then, it has created its own seal of approval, awarded to frozen yogurt with 10 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacturing, a threshold that offers digestive benefits, Fennig explains. However, she says that most of their approved frozen yogurt shops meet the association’s more rigorous requirements for more potent cup yogurt—at 100 million cultures per gram.

But the extent to which these bacteria support your health is another question.

“Probiotics are very strain-specific in their benefits,” says Lisa Brown, assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons College in Boston. “It’s really hard to say that [frozen yogurt] will translate the same way fermented foods do in terms of probiotic benefit.”

Still, Brown approves of many of the new frozen-yogurt options, noting that tart flavors slow down the release of sugar in the body, which stabilizes appetite and energy levels. Greek yogurts, in particular, are a good bet, she says, due to concentrated protein, which makes them creamy, yet they are low in fat and carbohydrates. (In fact, a lot of folks like to simply freeze their own cup of Greek yogurt for a healthy dessert.)

The key, of course, is to note the nutrition facts. Take, for example, a half-cup of Ben & Jerry’s Banana Peanut Butter Greek Frozen Yogurt, which has 210 calories and 8 grams of fat, when compared with Yocream’s nonfat Greek frozen yogurt, which has, at most, 100 calories per half-cup and, as mentioned, no fat. A half-cup of YoCream’s “cake batter,” the company’s No. 1 flavor—which it says has knocked vanilla out of first place for the first time in 25 years—has 130 calories and 3 grams of fat.

Whatever you choose, Brown says it’s “reasonable” for treats to account for 10 percent of your daily caloric intake. Assuming you follow a 2,000-calorie diet, you don’t want more than 200 calories taken up by fro-yo.

Bottom line: Watch your portions and take care with toppings.

And another tip from Brown: go with the sprinkles. They’re a happy, low-calorie way to round out your dessert, and not you. “Rainbow sprinkles make everything look fun.”