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

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

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

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?

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.

When it comes to toppings, all the frozen yogurt shops tend to keep their fresh fruit bars in pristine condition, replenishing them often enough to avoid any off-putting discolor or decay. Café Kem, which is run by the family that owns Jasmine Deli and Jasmine 26, has the largest selection of Asian toppings, including the juicy-sweet, floral lychee; the more fibrous, mango-like jackfruit; and the more elusive palm seed, which has a slippery texture similar to the lychee but is slightly chewier with a milder flavor. Asian mochi, or rice flour gummies, are found at many fro-yo shops, but none of the other local shops offers Kem's grass jelly—dark cubes of sour, smoky gelatin that taste more like dirt than grass—or its more palatable almond-flavored counterpart.

Fru-Lala may have the most whimsical toppings: squirtable mallow cream, full-size cookies, and the peanut butter-and-chocolate-coated cereal snack "puppy chow." (In case you were wondering, the Lucky Charms marshmallows in Fru-Lala's display are ordered in bulk, so, no, the staff doesn't have to pick them out of the cereal.)

Chilly Billy's, too, caters to the student crowd by going heavy on the candy (Swedish fish, Sour Patch Kids, etc.) and also offers whole coffee beans and coffee grounds, presumably for those anticipating a late night of studying. Impressively, Chilly Billy's goes through about 50 fresh kiwi a day, which makes you wonder if fro-yo toppings are the main source of fruit for its beer-and-pizza-fueled populace.

Red Mango, the mall shop in Burnsville Center, has found the hottest, trendiest topping in its "popping boba." They are about the same size as the tapioca balls, or "boba," in Asian bubble tea, but they're actually juice-filled spheres with a thin, grape-like skin. They're quite slippery, and challenging to catch between your teeth, but awfully fun to pop and eat.

Freeziac in Eden Prairie (the company also has locations in Plymouth and the Mall of America) displays most of its toppings in cool, gravity-fed dispensers, so you can dump on chocolate-covered peanuts, malted milk balls, or crushed candy bars to your heart's content. An employee actually advised me that the way to get the most sugar for my buck was to load up on toppings, which are lighter than the fro-yo. Freeziac has placed the most emphasis on its shops' design; the Eden Prairie location has mid-century modern decor and contemporary artwork. It's three blocks from the largest high school in the state, and its coffee-shop-like ambiance—as well as the fact that it's one of the few places in the area for under 21-ers that stays open till midnight on summer weekends—has made it something of a teen hangout.

After visiting all the new fro-yo shops, I trekked out to one of the last remaining TCBYs, in the Rosedale mall, for old time's sake. TCBY doesn't sell its "plain tart" flavor at that location, or the other metro one in New Hope, because it wasn't popular enough. So I settled for a cup of golden vanilla, which was sweeter and creamier than all those I'd recently sampled, without a trace of sour. Had I not known its origins, I would have assumed it was soft serve.