Chilly Billy's, Cafe Kem, and Fru-Lala add to frozen yogurt craze

Fro-yo fever in an ice cream town

Back in '80s, frozen yogurt was a treat moms bribed their kids with when they went to the mall. The icy swirls may not have had the appeal of a tri-colored bomb pop or a chocolate-dipped soft serve, but at least the frozen treat might contain more sugar than an Orange Julius. TCBY—The Country's Best Yogurt, or, originally, This Can't Be Yogurt—was the dominant frozen yogurt purveyor. The first TCBY store opened in Arkansas in 1981, and the business was franchised to create hundreds of other shops before it lost ground to McDonald's cheap, ubiquitous twist cones and was forced to scale back.

Frozen yogurt, or fro-yo, as it is affectionately known, became trendy again in 2005, when a 30-something Korean-American business school grad co-opened the first Pinkberry in West Hollywood, and throngs of weight-conscious Angelenos descended. Pinkberry's product had more tartness than the frozen yogurt Americans were accustomed to, as well as less fat, less sugar, and more live cultures. Pinkberry's nonfat, 100-calorie-per-half-cup yogurt was often positioned as a meal substitute, not a dessert, even if some of its fans forewent the fresh fruit toppings for the sugary cereals. The Los Angeles Times reported on Pinkberry's cult appeal in its Style & Culture section, calling its product "the taste that launched 1,000 parking tickets."

The yogurt shop's success inspired all sorts of competitors, many of them—Red Mango, Kiwiberry, Peachberry, Yoberry, Yogiberry—possessing similar-sounding, fruit-and-color-based names. The Twin Cities were slow to pick up the coastal trend, and there's no sign that we'll be getting a Pinkberry anytime soon. The Leeann Chin chain of quick-serve Chinese restaurants was the biggest player to get into the local market, adding Red Cherry frozen yogurt to its menu in the summer of 2008. But in the last few years, several more fro-yo options have swirled up: Cafe Kem on Eat Street, Chilly Billy's and Fru-Lala in Dinkytown, Red Mango and Freeziac in the suburbs. The shops, which each offer a slightly different take on the concept, are owned by entrepreneurs of varying backgrounds, including recent University of Minnesota graduates and a former vice president of Applebee's. But will these newcomers make inroads in Minnesota's die-hard ice cream culture?

Besides toppings, what's in frozen yogurt? Many shops won't say.
Emily Utne
Besides toppings, what's in frozen yogurt? Many shops won't say.
Emily Utne

Location Info


Cafe Kem

2524 Nicollet Ave. S., #101
Minneapolis, MN 55404

Category: Restaurant > Dessert

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Chilly Billy's Frozen Yogurt

314 15th Ave. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Restaurant > Frozen Yogurt

Region: University


375 N. Garden
Minneapolis, MN 55425

Category: Restaurant > Frozen Yogurt

Region: Bloomington


600 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403-1816

Category: Restaurant > Dessert

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)


Cafe Kem
2524 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.208.0254,

Chilly Billy's
314 15th Ave. SE, Minneapolis, 612.843.4278,

Mall of America, 60 E. Broadway, Bloomington, 952.303.6801 16532 W. 78th St., Eden Prairie, 952.934.4748
4105 Vinewood Ln. N., Plymouth, 952.303.6801

1315 Fourth St. SE, Minneapolis, 612.353.4986,

Leann Chin
Various metro locations. Check website to find stores offering Red Cherry frozen yogurt.

Red Mango Frozen Yogurt
Burnsville Center, 1042 Burnsville Ct., Burnsville, 952.898.6522

4231 Winnetka Ave. N., New Hope, 763.537.9344
Rosedale Mall, 120 Rosedale Ctr., Roseville, 651.635.9868

Before we attempt to answer that question, let's start with another one: What is frozen yogurt, exactly? Only after Pinkberry was slapped with a lawsuit alleging that its product wasn't what it claimed to be did the company release its previously secret, reformulated ingredient list: nonfat milk, sugar, cultured pasteurized nonfat milk with live and active cultures, plus less than 2 percent of cultured nonfat milk powder, fructose, dextrose, natural flavors, citric acid, guar gum, maltodextrin mono-and diglycerides, and starch.

Most frozen-yogurt shop operators make their fro-yo using a base or mix. One of the most popular is a powder made by an Italian company called PreGel that gets blended with yogurt, milk, water, and flavoring. Chilly Billy's product comes frozen from a company called YoCream in Portland, Oregon. Café Kem says it makes its frozen yogurt in-house and uses pureed fruit for its lychee flavor, which likely contributes to that flavor's excellence.

Roughly half the proprietors I spoke with were rather cagey about revealing the source of their product. Several repeated the words "high quality" and "best quality" without backing up the term with specifics, such as their product being made with organic dairy (Red Mango, by the way, does tout its product as being "all natural"). The secrecy makes one tend to assume the worst about unpronounceable additives. It also seems to reinforce the idea that frozen yogurt is basically a commodity good—all of it tastes pretty much the same to the average consumer. Generally, frozen yogurt shops distinguish themselves not by their frozen yogurt, but by their location, decor, number of flavors, and toppings. (Price tends not to be a factor; many of the shops are self-serve, pay-by-the-ounce, costing only a few cents different.)

Of all the frozen yogurts I sampled, Leeann Chin's Red Mango fro-yo, which is typically available in lemon or raspberry, tastes the most like actual yogurt, though I can't tell you why, as the company considers its ingredients "proprietary." It also has the creamiest, most voluptuous texture of all the frozen yogurts I sampled, with the exception of Fru La-La's peanut butter fro-yo, which defies the product's low-cal tendencies by containing actual fat from actual peanuts. Comparing the "plain tart" flavor at several shops, I found Café Kem's to be very neutral, with just a slight tartness. Red Mango's had a funkier sourness to it. Chilly Billy's was among the iciest.

The fruit flavors—Fru-Lala's pomegranate, for example—tend to be good choices because of frozen yogurt's textural similarity to sherbet and sorbet. Chilly Billy's shop has the most flavor options, though they're not all desirable. Banana tastes synthetic, like a banana Runt. Its nonfat chocolate flavor has all the watery-cocoa appeal of a diet fudge bar. Chilly Billy's cake batter stays fairly true to the original in the translation, which is probably why it's become the shop's most popular flavor. Chilly Billy's also has the largest large cup size, which evokes the outsize portions of movie theater popcorn and Big Gulp sodas.

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