May 7, 2009

The Lactobacillus Diaries: The Untold Scandals Behind Fro Yo’s Self Reinvention

Recently while heading home from the beach on a warm day, I stopped for a bubble tea at Quickly on Geary where I was greeted by signage proclaiming the arrival of a “new generation of frozen yogurt.” While I had heard tell of fro yo’s bizarre self-resurrection in New York and LA, the fad had yet to hit SF, probably on account of the fact that it is secretly freezing cold here all of the time.

My only contact with fake-Pinkberry in SF was with a high-end imposter, Ce Fiore, which on too many occasions had lured me into the mall while running work errands downtown. I had been forced to swear off future trips after a confrontation with a man trying to sell Israeli nail care systems from a mall kiosk which involved some non-consensual nail buffing, insults about lesbian nail bed disrepair, and an attempt to take away my fro yo during said demonstration (it was actually more epic than it sounds. BTdubbs, read about boycotting Israeli goods here).

So, as I sat with my .59 cent Quickly fro yo cup, my mind wandered to all of the ugg-clad ladies paying six dollars for their Pinkberry fix. I figured it was well worth the wait now that the fad of designer frozen yogurt had ushered in its inevitable scion: knock-off designer frozen yogurt. Indeed, Quickly, the woman-owned Taiwanese bubble-tea giant with over 2000 stores worldwide and over 14 in SF alone, announced the upcoming arrival of fro yo at multiple Bay Area locations.

But there was one other thing I couldn’t miss: the numerous posters and brochures proclaiming not only fro yo’s re-arrival, but it’s authentic yogurty-ness. Quickly had printed several versions of postcards with pictures of cows and happy women, making claims to the alive-ness of their live cultures and the details of their non-powder dairy sources. This was my first clue that fro yo’s second coming was fraught with more drama and intrigue than may meet the eye.

Ever interested in live cultures, all things related to healthy crotch Ph, fake-sinful lady indulgences of all sorts, and the drama that makes it all go round—I couldn’t resist some research. Consider us the Veronica Mars of your Cathy comic strip.

A Brief History of Fro Yo

Fro yo materialized sometime in the late seventies—no doubt the doing of some hippie fermentation enthusiasts. It was less than well-received by a world with a palate too unevolved to appreciate its signature tartness. Fortunately for fro yo, it’s chalkier, less-live-cultured cousin was developed by the time the eighties fat-free craze hit, racking up fortunes for chains like TCBY and ushering in a new era of supposed “guilt-free” indulgence.

With the increase in lower fat ice cream technology and the emergence of carbs--rather than fat--as the new threat to diet democracy, fro yo became largely relegated to retro-future corners of weird university villages. Tasty D Lite, a favorite of skinny rich women in upper Manhattan, remained the single mysterious survivor of the general extinction of softly-served frozen desserts.

Now, most well-mannered dessert fads would have gracefully accepted their fate by now, but fro yo has miraculously managed to dust its chalky-ass self off in time for another round as our favorite "food of the future." And really, would we expect anything less from the Cher of dessert fads? After all, this is a food which, despite having always been somewhat weird, only very questionably healthy, and perpetually overpriced—spawned several competing national chains for decades.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the apparent cultural amnesia that allows fro-yo to reposition itself as such a future-food, but then could hardly contain my excitement when the Quickly in my neighborhood got a soft serve machine. Why fight it? It’s good to see you again fro-yo.


So how did fro yo manage to turn the beat around? The answer is deceptively simple. Fro yo went back to it’s roots: it got tangy.

Sure, there’s the whole new line of toppings. People acting like they have never seen Captain Crunch or a kiwi before. The question here is: is it new toppings we want, or just new-old ways of topping ourselves? Lady Tigra's Pinkberry rap says it well:

Sorry ice cream, I'm dreaming of a different dessert
Pinkberry shaved ice and frozen yogurt
It doesn't feel like I'm cheating when I'm eating it
Cuz it's healthy; I'm feeling better already

Now, we know that frozen corn syrupy crap pooped out of a noisy machine isn’t healthy just because it has some vitamin C and decent bacteria thrown in. But really, what’s better than being a good girl and a bad girl at the same time? Not much. And so it goes.

Seriously, I like eating fro yo and imagining the private satisfaction of so many women as they too enjoy this “guilt free indulgence.” It’s almost this weird form of private-public collective-unconscious mass lady-masturbation. Thinking about each other eating frozen yogurt while eating frozen yogurt. And so there’s a hook even for lovers of dairy fat and body fat both: being the fro-yo eating fox in the henhouse that is actually a henhouse full of other fro yo-eating fox-hens.

The New Era

As if fro-yo’s miraculous reinvention weren’t interesting enough, its rise to fame is littered with untold secrets involving powdered lactobacillus, lawsuits, fake yelp accounts, stolen fonts, and a tangled web of intrigue and threats made by men brandishing cigars between Redmango and Pinkberry knock-off kingpins. TJJET is no stranger to the tangled web of yelp, the better businesses bureau, and organized crime (See Mira's upcoming post: "Psychic pain holds for protecting your credit from scamming self defense schools.")

The tang as we know it started when restaurateur-designer couple, Shelly Hwang and Young Lee, decided in 2005 that it was time West Hollywood had designer fro yo. They launched the first of LA’s now 72 Pinkberry stores. Hailed as the yogurt that “caused a thousand parking tickets,” the brand caused outcry with West Hollywood neighbors who were tired of women in Uggs double parking to wait in line for an hour for overpriced fro yo. Not to mention the Pinkberry cups that began blowing through the yards of West Hollywood like swarms of paper locusts.

Pinkberry brought fro yo back in tangy new flavors like pomegranate and acai (hello, what is acai flavor, really?) and outfitted them with toppings like fresh fruit and mochi. Hwang and Lee have pitched giant containers of fro yo as a new sort of meal and their stores—with a signature interior design aesthetic, cozy furniture and wi-fi—as the new coffee shop. We are talking Starbucks-esque ambitions.

Though Pinkberry credited itself with having invented a fro yo for the new millennium, it was itself a knock off of the Korean chain, Red Mango. Ironically but not surprisingly, further knock offs popped up all over So cal. Many with “pink” or “berry” in the name and uncanny design similarities. All equally tangy.

Around this time, it was discovered that Red Mango was actually made with an Italian powder, not real dairy. This led to speculations about the real-ness of the dairy products used in Pinkberry. After all, the supposed live cultures were the whole reason we’d given ourselves an excuse to fall for fro yo again.

After an LA times lab-sting revealed that Pinkberry did not contain the number of cultures needed to meet California’s definition of “yogurt,” there was a lawsuit regarding Pinkberry’s live culture claims, which sent all new tangy yogurt companies into a hustle to ensure customers that theirs was real yogurt. It was then that a competitor accused Lee of approaching him after hours and threatening him with bodily harm while brandishing a cigar.

Lee counter-sued. An out of court settlement demanded the competitor admit to stealing Pinkberry’s font, name, and general design concept, that they deny all connections to Pinkberry in their advertising, AND that the competitor admit to posting fake yelp reviews to his own site while posing as “a regular yogurt eater” going by the alias yogurtfanatik. So far yogurtfanatik has not come forward.

Meanwhile, Pinkberry, having restored the authenticity of their yogurt with a new recipe, is now endorsed by the National Yogurt Board. The yogurt-pushers have since tried to distract us from the probiotic dramas of yesteryear by beginning a mad dash to win celebrity loyalty. At last report, Red Mango had installed a machine in Leonardo DiCaprio’s office, but the pictures will speak for themselves.

Obvi, this is to be continued.

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