Upon hearing about the recent influx of frozen yogurt shops popping up across the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, a colleague remarked, “Is this the 1980s all over again?” Though we have yet to see a Flock of Seagulls haircut resurface, he does have a point: The Twin Cities hasn’t seen this many fro-yo places open in quite some time. Just as cupcakes were the rage two years ago, self-serve frozen yogurt — sweet and tart, with toppings galore — is becoming ubiquitous, and The Heavy Table has the lowdown on four shops that let you swirl and scoop your perfect dish. Just be warned: Those cups are generously sized for a reason. The more you add, the more you pay.
The New Kids on the Block
Of the four recently opened frozen yogurt shops we visited, two were home-grown concepts and two were franchises. Tutti Frutti, located in Maple Grove’s Main Street at Arbor Lakes, was first of the four to open in September 2011 by franchisee Kelly Gaspar, who saw an opportunity to dish up a treat she felt was missing from the Twin Cities.
“We didn’t have a lot of good yogurt, let alone self-serve yogurt, in this area,” Gaspar says. “I did a lot of research, and it came down to quality of product. I found that with Tutti Frutti.”
Another popular national chain, Menchie’s, entered the Twin Cities market in early October when manager Whitney Anderson and her family opened their Highland Park location at the corner of Cleveland and Pinehurst avenues. A University of St. Thomas alum, Anderson had spent a year scouting a storefront and found that even with an autumn opening, the locals were ready for frozen yogurt.
“Obviously, the ideal time [to open] would have been summer, but we’re in this for the long haul,” Anderson says. “We liked that Menchie’s is, at its core, family and community and giving back. It aligns well with our beliefs.”
The holidays brought a third fro-yo concept to the area: The Yogurt Lab, adjacent to the new My Burger near Lake Calhoun. According to manager Marie Tavlin, owners Aaron and Andrea Switz and Phil Becker saw the trend explode on the West Coast and saw an untapped niche here. A Dec. 18 opening, combined with a milder-than-average month, proved to be advantageous for the shop, which welcomed a flood of students and families in its first few weeks.
“It was a great time with the kids back from winter break,” Tavlin says. “We’ve been doing better than we thought we would with a winter opening.”
And across the river near the St. Paul Trader Joe’s on Lexington Parkway, former restaurant and retail consultant David Brandner launched Free Style Yogurt just last weekend. Like with Yogurt Lab’s owners, he saw the frozen yogurt scene flourish in California and Texas and decided Minnesota would be the ideal location for his first fro-yo venture.
“I love the product, I love the energy in the stores, and I thought I’d really like to do this,” Brandner says. “I wanted to build a brand from the ground up and create a shop atmosphere that would be unique.”
The Heavy Table did an exhaustive, gut-busting pilgrimage to sample the frozen yogurt, discover new toppings, and feel the vibe of each shop. Overall, we found the yogurt quality and flavor selection ranging from good to excellent, but subtle differences among the shops’ offerings exist. While not a strict head-to-head comparison, below we explore the nuances of taste, decor, and cost. While you can’t really go wrong with any of the shops if you’re craving a cold treat, chances are one will fit your style more than others.
Flavors and Toppings
If you’re the kind of person who likes a little bit of one flavor and some of another, you’ll love self-serve fro-yo — you can mix and match to your heart’s content. All four shops offer small cups for tastes so you can find your favorites, and then you can pick up a big bowl for your real treat. (Menchie’s offers a waffle bowl for an extra $1, while Free Style also has a cone option.) You’ll always find vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, a cake batter / cupcake flavor, and other classics among the 12-14 flavors available daily.
Red velvet seems particularly popular these days, and our preference is for the not-overly-sweet version at Tutti Frutti. Seasonal favorites rotate in and out frequently, though we saw candy cane flavors still holding on through January. The salted caramel is the “rock star” at Yogurt Lab, according to Tavlin, which they pair with green apple for a caramel apple swirl option, but our favorite was the fior di latte, a milky smooth base that easily takes on toppings. Other standouts include the white chocolate mousse at Free Style, the almond and coffee at Tutti Frutti, and the gingerbread at Menchie’s.
All the shops offer at least one tart yogurt flavor as well — the California favorite, a la Pinkberry, may be new to many Midwestern palates, but it’s slowly catching on.
“It takes an acquired taste. At first people would want to mix it with fruit to sweeten it, but now it’s selling more,” Gaspar says.
“About 75-80 percent of people want frozen yogurt to emulate ice cream, and 25 percent prefer tart — and they’re passionate about it,” Brandner adds.
The variety of toppings at any of the shops put your average TCBY to shame. Anything goes on frozen yogurt, from candy, cookie dough, and brownies to cereal, fresh fruit, and boba. I squealed with delight when I spotted Twix pieces at Menchie’s — why more shops don’t have this candy bar as an option, I don’t know, but you can bet I loaded up on it. Kudos to Tutti Frutti for keeping the toppings containing nuts in a separate carousel from the others — a tip Gaspar picked up from her store manager, who has relatives with nut allergies.
Traffic moves most smoothly at Menchie’s, which placed its cashier stand in the center of the store and the yogurt machines and toppings stations in an arc along the back and side wall. This layout allows the customers to make their way around the perimeter of the shop efficiently without much of a backup. Tutti Frutti and The Yogurt Lab have their yogurt dispensers along one wall of a narrow hallway and the toppings stations along the opposite wall, which can make for a tight squeeze when there’s a crowd hankering for yogurt. Free Style has its machines along one wall of its roomy entrance and the toppings along the edges of a toppings alcove, if you will, at the front of the store. It was easy to maneuver during a recent visit, when traffic was small but steady, but it could feel more packed on a hot summer’s day when something frozen and creamy is the only thing on people’s minds.
Your favorite shop likely will be determined not only by your taste in flavors but by theme, too. The bright, whimsical Menchie’s motif fits in well with its family-focused Highland Park clientele, but if an abundance of pink and green makes you think you’re living in Barbie’s dream mansion, you may prefer the stark, almost sterile approach to Yogurt Lab’s decor. Spotlessly clean, the shop features its “periodic table” on the wall to showcase the various families of flavors on rotation, and there’s not a drop of kitsch to be found.
Not surprisingly, the colorful palette of fresh fruit dominates Tutti Frutti’s decor, with posters extolling the yogurt’s health benefits filling the shop walls. You have to laugh as you load your cup with cheesecake bites and hot fudge. Free Style takes its cue from owner Brandner’s California days, with red and white surfboards serving as tabletops and decals of boarders gracing the walls. We’ve got to tip our hat to his funky, spherical light fixtures and the long table placed at the perfect height for a preschool-sized visitor. If we had a crystal ball, we’d likely see many birthday parties at Free Style in the future.
The beauty of self-serve yogurt, of course, is that you can take as much or as little you can eat. But when you pay by ounce, as you do at all four shops, you might walk away from the register with a bigger hole in your wallet than you anticipated. The per-ounce cost varies from 42 cents / ounce at Free Style to 48 cents / ounce at Yogurt Lab, and with large cups that encourage you to fill ’em up, don’t be surprised if your concoction costs $5-6. And if you bring in a team of hungry teenage boys… well, bring your credit card. It’s not going to be cheap.
Free Style has a (pun definitely intended) cool option, though — you can spin a wheel marked with various numbers ranging from 29 to 46, and whichever number you land on is your price per ounce in cents. Most of the numbers are below the listed 42 cents / ounce, but if your number is higher, you get a coupon for the difference in price to use on your next visit. Both Free Style and Tutti Frutti offer loyalty cards that give you discounts after a certain number of purchases, too.
Sizing up the Competition
The proliferation of frozen yogurt shops doesn’t seem to phase the leaders of these local ventures. In fact, they welcome it.
“I think competition is good. We did our research and liked what Menchie’s stands for. But the more, the merrier,” Anderson says.
“I love frozen yogurt and I don’t want to drive a long way to get some. I like seeing other shops pop up in other parts of town,” Gaspar adds.
And with the new shops spread out across the metro, Brandner thinks there’s room for all to succeed.
“Competition is good to raise awareness of frozen yogurt. With proper spacing within a market, it’s great,” Brandner says. “But when you have three shops on a four-corner intersection, someone is going to lose.
“I’m a firm believer in giving value for people’s money, and I believe we have a great value, but ultimately it’s the community that decides.”
Free Style Yogurt
500 Lexington Pkwy S
St. Paul, MN 55116
750 Cleveland Ave S
St. Paul, MN 55116
7781 Main St N
Maple Grove, MN 55369
The Yogurt Lab
3100 Excelsior Blvd
Minneapolis, MN 55416