Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The self-serve frozen yogurt competition heats up in Lafayette, and locals are lining up to chill out. By Erin Z. Bass Photos by Robin May

It was a combination of Original Tart topped with Fruity Pebbles, Oreos and coconut flakes that caused Kayla Lachney to have a “crush” on frozen yogurt. She was living in Orange County, Calif., at the time and says she couldn’t go without her fix from one of the region’s many yogurt shops each day. “I would be at work and watching the clock, asking my co-workers, ‘When can we go to Pinkberry or Yogurtland?’ It became a routine every day,” she says.

When Lachney came home to visit her family in Lafayette and central Louisiana, she missed her daily cup of frozen yogurt, so much so that she decided to move to Lafayette and open her own shop with the help of her family and fiancé. Her dad attended a seminar for the Tutti Frutti franchise, but the family eventually decided to go with its own concept.

20101124-ABIZnews-0101

Swirll General Manager Lisa Mann Breaux (center)
and two of her employees, Ashlee Bergeron (left)
and Morgan Hebert, serve up 16 flavors of yogurt
and over 60 toppings on Kaliste Saloom.

And so Lafayette got its first taste of the frozen yogurt trend on May 12 when Lachney opened Crush in River Ranch. Located on Main Street near Another Broken Egg, Crush was first to enter the Acadiana market with pay-by-the-ounce, self-serve frozen yogurt machines and a variety of toppings to choose from.

Customers walk in and mix or swirl as many flavors as they want with the pull of a lever, then add toppings like Snickers bites, frosted animal cookies, Mike & Ikes, berries, nuts and even hot fudge. The cup goes on a scale, and price is calculated by weight. An employee only enters the picture to take your money and make change.

It wasn’t long before Lachney found out she wasn’t the only one with a crush on building her own cup of frozen yogurt. A location of Houston-based Swirll on Kaliste Saloom in the Shops at Martial opened Aug. 27 and was followed by California franchise Tutti Frutti on Ambassador Caffery the week of Nov. 8. TCBY has also jumped on the bandwagon, and local franchisee Boo Plumley is rolling out the company’s brand-new self-serve shop in South College Center the first of the year.

Much like the sushi craze Lafayette experienced a few years ago, frozen yogurt seems to be flooding the market, and several owners say they are already looking at second and third locations in the city. How many yogurt shops can Acadiana handle? How many times a week do you eat frozen yogurt?

TCBY became the first frozen yogurt chain in 1981, after its founder tasted the product at a Dallas Neiman Marcus department store. The first shop opened in Little Rock, Ark., and by 1986, frozen yogurt had become mainstream as a substitute for ice cream. The product has had its ups and downs since then but was revitalized in 2005 when Pinkberry opened its first store in Hollywood, Calif. A hit with health-conscious celebrities, although it wasn’t self-serve, Pinkberry spawned several self-serve chains like Menchie’s and Yogurtland across California, and eventually the trend crossed state lines to spread throughout the country.

In October, American Public Media reported there were around 22,000 frozen yogurt stores in the U.S. and that it can cost less than $10,000 to open a shop. TCBY lists is initial franchise fee at $19,900, with a total estimated investment of $142,300-$347,200. Yogurtland’s franchise fee is $35,000, with estimated build-up costs at $350,000-$400,000.

Former owner of The Kitchenary in the Oil Center, Swirll General Manager Lisa Mann Breaux says frozen yogurt is a great fit for Lafayette, and the South, because it’s so similar to ice cream, only with a lot more health benefits. And, of course, she says Swirll’s product is the best.

“It’s definitely a creamier yogurt. It’s not based on an icy one like Pinkberry,” she explains. “We’re very, very similar to ice cream. Most kids can’t tell the difference. Our ingredients come from Italy, and it’s a formula that our founder worked on for years. He knew the background, and he realized that the South liked creamier.”

20101124-ABIZnews-0102

Boo Plumley, local franchisee of TCBY, is
preparing to roll out the company’s new self-serve
concept on South College.

After visiting Swirll’s Houston locations, Breaux also realized that tart flavors wouldn’t go over well in Lafayette either. While the original Swirll’s flavors are about 50 percent tart, the Lafayette location is offering only four until customers’ palates become accustomed to the acidic taste. (Perhaps the sweetest of Swirll’s offerings, Ragin’ Cajun Red Velvet is a big seller.) Tart is closer to the original flavor of natural yogurt, but all flavors retain the health benefits, including live cultures (probiotics) that introduce good bacteria into the digestive system.

According to Tutti Frutti’s corporate website, potential health benefits of consuming frozen yogurt include strengthening the immune system, prevention of colon cancer and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Frozen yogurt is also low in fat and fat-free in a lot of cases, containing between 80-160 calories per half cup, depending on the flavor.

Crush’s Lachney says flavor and creaminess were certainly a priority, and not being a franchise, her shop is able to control the amount of water versus fat-free milk in its product and even mix its own flavors like Candy Apple Strawberry Banana and Gingerbread, which will be on tap for the holidays. Crush also sells build-your-own milkshakes, where customers pour their yogurt and toppings into the cup, and an employee adds milk and blends.

While Crush says its machines are larger than Swirll’s and hold more yogurt, resulting in a better consistency, Swirll counters that it’s best at providing nutritional information and accommodating customers with medical and dietary concerns.

“Basically, we can deal with gluten-free, we can deal with sugar-free in here, we can deal with dairy-free,” says Breaux. “Where else can you go and find a dessert that somehow can hit every one of those issues? We have found that there’s a huge diabetic population in Lafayette, and there’s a huge children’s diabetic population. We have the carbs and sugars listed where they can do the ratio and quickly figure out what they need to know.”

20101124-ABIZnews-0104

Kayla Lachney was first to introduce the self-serve
frozen yogurt concept to Lafayette with Crush
in River Ranch.

At Tutti Frutti, owner Mary McCullough is touting her shop’s size — more than 3,200 square feet— and cupcake offerings from Sweet Southern Ladies, in addition to her yogurt, which is heavy on the fruit flavors and described by her as “so
XX"> fresh, so good and so light.”

Headquartered in Buena Park, Calif., Tutti Frutti is one of the fastest growing yogurt franchises, opening 245 stores in 16 states and 11 countries in just three years. New Orleans and Baton Rouge locations are listed as coming soon on its website, and Tutti Frutti also has stores open in Hammond and Metairie.

Being the latest to hit the Lafayette market, McCullough is still figuring out her day-to-day operations, but both Crush and Swirll already have big plans for expansion. Lachney plans to keep Crush family-owned, but has a second location coming in Sugar Mill Pond and another in the Alexandria/Pineville area. Swirll’s owner James Marceaux licensed the concept from its original Houston owner and has the rights to franchise, something Swirll has already started to do across the South — in a big way.

“We’re looking at a second location in Lafayette right now, we’re building in Baton Rouge, we’re building in Covington, we’re building three in Atlanta and we’re looking at two in New Orleans that we’ll probably build pretty quickly,” says Breaux.  Marceaux also plans to place Swirll in Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., Jackson, Miss., Jacksonville, Fla., and Murphysboro, Tenn., in the coming year.

 

20101124-ABIZnews-0103

In addition to 14 flavors of frozen yogurt,
Tutti Frutti franchisee Mary McCullough also
serves cupcakes 
by Sweet Southern Ladies.

As a veteran in the frozen yogurt industry, TCBY’s Plumley is taking her time and plans to sit back and watch the other shops as her own nears completion. “TCBY has been open on Kaliste Saloom since 1999,” she says. “We’ve been the only act in town, and in the last six months all this stuff has started popping up.”

Plumley says she’s always wanted a location near South College but thought she needed a drive-thru to be successful. Now, with the self-serve method, all she needs is a storefront. And she’s not worried in the least about all of her competition, remaining confident that TCBY’s name, and history, speak for itself. She’s also betting that her experience in the business will allow her to outlast the others.

“Everybody thinks it’s easy and just yogurt, but you have to have a business plan and budget in the summer for November, December and January,” she says. “Business goes down 60-75 percent in the winter. We’re still here after 11 years, so I think that says a lot.”

The rest of the women do say they partly entered the business for the fun of it, as well as the low startup costs and ease of running a self-serve business. Only Lachney admits she’s concerned about making it through the winter and has a few things up her sleeve to drive business in the coming months.

“There’s nothing sad about being in yogurt. People are happy when they come here,” says Breaux.

Adds McCullough, “I always wanted to open a company for me, and so this is something easy. It’s not like you have to deep-fry this or deep-fry that, it’s just mixing yogurt and milk. The machine does it all.”

Lafayette Yogurt by the Numbers

Crush

12 flavors & 6 machines

58 toppings

43 cents an ounce

Calories range from 94-140 per half cup

 
Swirll

16 flavors & 8 machines

Over 60 toppings

43 cents an ounce

Calories average around 100 per half cup

 
Tutti Frutti

14 flavors & 7 machines

50 toppings, plus 7 flavors of cupcakes

43 cents an ounce

Calories range from 80-125 per half cup

 
TCBY

12 flavors & 6 machines

30 toppings minimum

Per ounce price TBD

Calories range from 80-120 per 3 oz.

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