Pulling the lever of a self-serve frozen-yogurt machine — much like pulling a slot at a casino — brings a split-second adrenaline rush.
As you wait for your cold treat to swirl out of its dispenser and into your cup, your mind races: Is mixing pistachio flavor with raspberry-mango a good idea? Would M&Ms make this better? Is anyone looking, or can I lick this little bit off my finger?
St. Louis has experienced a recent explosion of do-it-yourself frozen-yogurt shops, to the point where they're almost — almost — as ubiquitous as Starbucks. The tart, Asian-inspired yogurt with a smorgasbord of candy and fruit toppings has been a hit in cities such as Los Angeles and New York for years, and now St. Louis has caught the fever.
"A year ago, there was one place here to get this kind of frozen yogurt," says Ryan Kerlick, general manager of Chill, referring to FroYo, the family-owned shop open in the Delmar Loop since 2008. "Now we have something like 18." (We counted 23; our list follows.)
The trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Kerlick and his staff opened Chill's third area location, in the Ladue Market Place, last weekend. And a newcomer, Flying Cow Frozen Yogurt Co., is set to open in midtown's Grand Center by month's end.
The trick to standing apart in an increasingly crowded field of competitors is catering to your customer base, the shops' operators say.
"Our customers in Clayton love the really tart flavors, so we have to keep those on constant rotation there," Kerlick says about Chill's Wydown Boulevard location, which opened in April 2010. "But in Des Peres, it's the exact opposite. They want the sweet dessert stuff."
At Lancia Frozen Yogurt, which opened about five months ago on Clayton Road in Chesterfield, owner John Lancia keeps things democratic by letting customers cast votes on a big magnetic board for the next week's flavors.
"Everyone is always telling me, 'You gotta have this flavor,' or, 'You gotta add this topping,'" Lancia says. "So I just put up this big board and said, 'You tell me what you want. I'll bring it in.' It's fun to watch everyone from little kids to older people come in and go right over to the board to vote."
Customer feedback is also how Lancia came up with some of his shop's most popular toppings: tiny boba balls filled with natural fruit flavors that pop when you bite them, and sweet, rice-based confections called mochi that are Japanese-inspired.
"We had people who had mochi toppings at yogurt places in California, but they couldn't find any here," Lancia says. "Now that we have it, people who have never tried it love it."
(Something else that makes Lancia's customers come back for more: At 40 cents an ounce, his yogurt was the least expensive we found in the area.)
This wave of tart, self-serve frozen yogurt is experiencing the same popularity that sweet TCBY yogurt did in the 1980s and premium ice-cream shops like Cold Stone Creamery and Maggie Moo's did in the early 2000s. The yogurt-shop owners harness their multitude of flavors and topping combinations with Americans' desire for low-calorie treats made from natural ingredients.
"We buy our products from a local dairy, we don't use preservatives, and we use real fruit in our toppings and purees," Kerlick says. "All of that adds up to a healthier alternative to frozen custard or really rich ice cream."
Plus, he adds, there is an element of empowerment that comes with being able to pull the yogurt handle yourself and add your own toppings.
With frozen yogurt so hot, can it be long before someone puts a froyo food truck on the road?
"I'd never say never," Kerlick says. "It's something we're definitely kicking around."
Where to get your fro-yo fix
Here's our roundup of the area's frozen-yogurt shops. See any we missed? Let us know in the comments.
Twist Froyo Cafe: 1063 South State Road 157, Edwardsville; also in Wildwood • twistfroyocafes.com
Flying Cow Frozen Yogurt Co.: 3331 Locust Street, midtown • flyingcowyogurt.com
Peachy Yogurt Bar: 200 East Main Street, Belleville • facebook.com/peachyyogurtbar
Hits and misses
In our quest for frozen assets, we found some things we loved ...
Voting board: Lancia determines the next week's flavors according to what gets the most customer votes on a big magnetic board positioned across from a wall of yogurt machines.
Small cups: Frozen yogurt melts too quickly for anyone to make use of the massive cups that some places give to customers. Props to the shops with reasonably sized containers.
Popping bobos: Unlike the tapioca pearls in Taiwanese bubble tea, these liquid-filled pebbles aren't chewy; they burst when you bite them. Lancia and Red Mango have 'em in their topping bars.
Old-school cereal: We're unabashed fans of putting some Cap'n Crunch or Fruity Pebbles on our froyo for a textural punch.
Free samples: Most yogurt shops have small tasting cups so you can try a flavor before you buy.
... and some we'd rather skip
Maraschino cherries: These syrupy-sweet, preserved cherries might have been the go-to topping for ice cream sundaes of yesteryear, but they lend an artificial flavor amid all the fresh froyo toppings.
Gummy bears: The movie theater favorite works at room temperature, but on top of frozen yogurt, they turn hard and flavorless.
Cookie dough: It's a guilty pleasure, but it's one of the heaviest toppings available. When you're paying by the ounce, a few balls of cookie dough can tip the froyo scale into a pricey indulgence.
Misleading health claims: Saying your frozen yogurt is 100 calories per serving is fine. But when a serving size is a half-cup, and your containers hold six cups, health claims quickly melt away.