A game of top this in frozen yogurt wars

Pinkberry got the craze going, but as more and more competitors rush in, the winners in the end should be the consumers.
By Charlie Amter, Times Staff Writer
For a guy who has yet to officially open his business in the U.S., the president of fledgling frozen yogurt company Red Mango is having a very good day. "We just installed a machine in Leonardo DiCaprio's office," Dan Kim says from the South Korea-based firm's office near LAX. "Now he wants a machine delivered to his temporary home in New York. Apparently, he heard about the rats at Pinkberry's New York store."

Kim laughs at his own cheap shot. But the 31-year-old former investment banker is going to need more than DiCaprio's blessing — or his competitor's snafu (captured by a WABC-TV camera and since remedied) — to topple SoCal's rapidly expanding Pinkberry chain and make a dent in the burgeoning market for tart-flavored frozen yogurt.

Tart yogurt, the progenitor of the sweeter, ice cream-like varieties dispensed by myriad chains throughout the Southland, is on the rise, with local food bloggers and national publications such as Travel & Leisure weighing in on the Pinkberry phenomenon. The chain's particular brand of tart plain or green tea-flavored yogurt, sprinkled with healthful toppings such as fruits and almonds, has been dubbed "crackberry" by heavy users.

More than merely offering discerning palates a new flavor for their summertime desserts, these new stores are shaping themselves as social gathering places. Their sleek, comfortable designs have as much in common with modern coffeehouses than ice cream parlors, inviting patrons to linger.

And there will be plenty from which to choose. With Pinkberry at 20 California locations and growing, Red Mango makes its debut in Westwood on Tuesday, and another straight-from-Korea competitor, Yogurberry, opens a Koreatown shop July 16, the first of 23 planned for the state this year.

What's cool this summer?

It's "fro-yo" — and watching the fro-yo wars.

The new coffee shops?

Although Southern California has already been through one frozen yogurt boom-and-bust cycle in the 1980s and '90s, things look different this time around. Fro-yo shops such as Pinkberry and Valley Village's new Menchie's are attracting crowds that previously hung out at Starbucks or the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Actual "scenes" are developing at some locations — partially because of their interior design, as well as customers' increasing appreciation for the health benefits of eating yogurt over, say, drinking a Frappuccino.

Kim has even hired away former employees of Starbucks, the Coffee Bean and Peet's to ensure the atmosphere is just right.

"We were inspired by companies like Whole Foods and even the Urth Caffé on Melrose," Kim says. "It's all about the concept of where do people want to go after they are done working, where they feel like they can hang out."

In the shadow of a Los Feliz Starbucks on a Monday evening, Pinkberry's Vermont Street location was buzzing with energy — and not the caffeinated kind. "This is a more social place than Starbucks," says Erin Bibelheimer, a 22-year-old student who comes three times a week to hang out on the small patio.

Across town, Daniella Schwartz, 23, likes to sit for hours at Berri Good on Robertson to use its free wireless Internet and enjoy a cool cup of creamy yogurt. "It's a great environment and I love that they are open late," she says.

And it's the same scene at dozens of yogurt, gelato and ice cream shops all over the Southland, from Silverlake's packed Pazzo Gelato to Fullerton's sleek Yogurtland.

Although socializing at yogurt shops might be a new phenomenon for many Angelenos, meeting up at such places is nothing new in Koreatown. Teenagers have gathered at places like Ice Kiss on 6th Street for years, gossiping while sharing a massive patbingsu topped off with frozen yogurt and various fruits (priced at nearly $20, these are meant to be shared).

Ice Kiss even became a popular destination to watch South Korea's surprising World Cup run last year — everyone decked out in red while watching their national soccer team on television.

Red Mango hopes to inspire a similar homespun feeling, although Kim concedes it will be hard to compete with the square footage available at larger coffee shops. Still, he aspires to have customers lounging at his shops morning, noon and night. "It's a food that you can have for breakfast, lunch or even dinner," he says. "It's not just dessert anymore."

Culture wars

In addition to Red Mango and Pinkberry, no fewer than 25 stores in the greater L.A. area are now offering up a familiar mélange of tart yogurts, with exotic toppings such as bite-sized bits of mochi. Among the similar-to-Pinkberry stores are wannabes like Snowberry, IceBerry, Berri Good and Kiwiberri.

In fact, Seoul-based Red Mango claims that Pinkberry copied its concept, teasing "Red Mango did it first, and nobody does it better" in promotional materials.

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