Frozen yogurt face-offIs this town big enough for four yogurt stores?
By Jane Knoerle
Spring flowers aren't the only things popping up in Menlo Park this season. The frozen yogurt craze has finally made its way to Menlo Park. Three new stores — The Mix, WildBerry and Miyo Yogurt — have opened, joining the Yogurt Stop, which has been in business here for 25 years.
This is the second time around for frozen yogurt frenzy. The original craze began in the 1980s, then like hula hoops and bell bottoms, faded away. The resurgence began in the early 2000s.
The Red Mango frozen yogurt chain originated in Seoul, Korea, in 2002, according to a 2008 article in the New York Times. Korean Americans Shelly Hwang and Young Lee opened the first Pinkberry in West Hollywood in 2005. Both these chains have multiple stores, especially in New York City and Southern California, and continue expanding rapidly.
When frozen yogurt first appeared in the 1980s, it was touted as a low-fat alternative to ice cream. However, most of the early versions of frozen yogurt contained very little yogurt, according to the National Yogurt Association. Today's frozen yogurt is a tart, decidedly yogurt-flavored swirl.
While the frozen dessert is itself low-fat and low-cal, it usually comes with toppings. Some are healthful, some not-so-much. A cup of yogurt with fresh berries is a healthful snack. When it's smothered with Cocoa Pebbles, chocolate chips, Gummi Bears and marshmallow bits, not-so-healthful.
Owners Jamie Schein and Susannah Albright see their new venture, The Mix, a Frozen Yogurt Treatery, at 3536 Alameda de Las Pulgas in West Menlo Park, as, not just a yogurt shop, but a family-friendly gathering spot. "We are striving for a cafe feeling," says Ms. Albright, noting the shop also serves Blue Bottle coffee and baked goods.
Both women live in Menlo Park with their families. Each earned an MBA from Stanford University and followed a career in high-tech. Ms. Schein is a former president of the Las Lomitas Education Foundation and current president of the Las Lomitas School District's governing board. Ms. Albright has served a president of the Oak Knoll Parent Teachers Organization, and as president of the P.T.O. Council.
How did two such high-powered women decide on a yogurt shop?
"I was interested in starting a business of my own and had several ideas in mind," says Ms. Albright.
She discussed her ideas over lunch with Ms. Schein, who liked the yogurt shop concept. After a lot of research and many visits to other yogurt shops, they were ready to go into business.
The Mix has an inviting interior decorated in silver and blue. Customers sit at three tables or perch on silver stools. The display of 32 toppings is immaculate. There are several kinds of fresh fruit — strawberries, mango, pineapple and kiwi — as well as such sweet stuff as Butterfinger, jimmies, and Gummi Worms. "Gummi Worms is our most popular topping," says Ms. Schein, with a laugh.
Recently, the yogurts of the day were: organic tart, mocha, vanilla and peanut butter.
The owners say the quality of their yogurt sets them apart. Many yogurt chains use a dehydrated yogurt formula, which is then re-hydrated and churned in the store. Not The Mix.
"There are live cultures in our yogurt. That's the difference," says Ms. Albright. "Straus Family Creamery is our primary source. Our tart yogurt is just plain yogurt. For fruit yogurt, we add a fruit puree. There are no artificial flavors, no preservatives or food coloring."
The Mix refers to another unique feature. Toppings may be mixed right into the yogurt in a special machine. A yogurt with a single mix-in is $4.25.
Although The Mix and WildBerry aren't far apart, the owners are confident the community can support both shops. "We have a lot of families in our neighborhood who appreciate businesses close to home," says Ms. Schein.
Wildberry, at 325 Sharon Park Drive in the Sharon Heights Shopping Center, has a sparkling decor of lime green and white with orange accents. The large, airy space has windows on two sides and lots of attractive outdoor seating.
The shop has 10 self-serve selections, with flavors ranging from peach tart to honeydew. There are 18 wet toppings and 18 dry toppings. The fruit includes kiwi, mango, strawberries, lychee, and cherries. The dry toppings range from nuts and granola to M&Ms, Gummi Bears and Cap'n Crunch.
After you help yourself, a server weighs the large cup (the only size) at 41 cents an ounce. The toppings add up. On a recent visit, my 10-year-old grandson's cup cost $6.
Wildberry, part of a chain that originated in Southern California, is a welcome addition to the shopping center. Its outdoor tables are filled with families, from grandmas to toddlers, enjoying themselves. The store has also become a popular hangout for the kids from La Entrada, who flock there after school. It's their 2010 version of the malt shop.
Miyo Yogurt, at 842 Santa Cruz Ave. in downtown Menlo Park, opened two months ago. It is one of two yogurt shops owned by Do Tran; the other is located in Los Altos.
At Miyo, you serve yourself from a large variety of flavors. Recently the shop featured raspberry, fruit punch, almond, red velvet cake, vanilla, guava, blueberry, peach tart, and plain tart. There are 68 dry and wet toppings available, including a wide assortment of Asian toppings, such as lychee jelly, sweet red beans, and mochi. There was a nice assortment of fresh fruit, including strawberries, kiwi, and mango.
After you fill your cup and add toppings, the whole confection is weighed at 43 cents an ounce.
Miyo is already popular with students from Hillview and St. Raymond schools, both located on Santa Cruz Avenue. Hillview students Taylor Felt and Abby Lindquist, who were enjoying vanilla and fruit punch yogurts on a recent Saturday, said they are frequent customers.
Soheila Khalili of Menlo Park has owned the Yogurt Stop, at 1401 El Camino Real in Menlo Park, since it opened 24 years ago. She isn't worried about the influx of new shops. "I've seen them come and go," she says.
A resident of Menlo Park for more than 20 years, Ms. Khalili comes to the shop every morning to make an assortment of 10 flavors of yogurt. "It's all made fresh every day," she says. As for the "new" tart original yogurt, she's been serving it for at least two years.
All the yogurt is non-fat, except for French custard, which is low-fat. Sugar-free yogurt is also available. Recent offerings included vanilla, peanut butter, strawberry, chocolate, rocky road, mocha, and mint Oreo. There are more than 20 toppings, plus fresh-cut fruit, such as mango, peach and raspberries.
The smallest cup of frozen yogurt costs $4, medium is $4.25, large is $4.50. Each topping is $1.10.
Let's hope Menlo Park has enough frozen yogurt fans for all four stores to succeed. The new owners can take heart from Starbucks' success. There are four Starbucks stores in town and all seem to be thriving.