There was a time when frozen yogurt was everywhere, with Pinkberry dishes acting as a hot new celeb accessory and chains like Yogurtland and Forever Yogurt and any other names you can think of implying some sort of eternal cultured paradise filled with tart, “guilt-free” desserts. Now, those treat-yourself topping bars are fewer and farther between. Still, a look back on when and how frozen yogurt shops first rose to fame (then found new life again) implies that we should start gearing up for a return of the cyclical fro-yo fad.
The origins of frozen yogurt
The first frozen yogurt franchises in the United States popped up in the 1970s. According to the International Frozen Yogurt Association, the two biggest players at first were Everything Yogurt, which opened in New York City in 1976, and I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt (ICBIY), which opened in Dallas in 1977. The original versions of this dessert were not much different from what the name implies: what we consider traditional yogurt, but frozen, erring more on the side of tart than particularly sweet.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that TCBY (originally an acronym for “This Can’t Be Yogurt,” that, yes, was changed to “The Country’s Best Yogurt” because of a lawsuit with ICBIY) altered the formula and embraced the nutrition angle, marketing fro-yo as a “healthy” alternative to ice cream while simultaneously introducing the toppings bar and sweeter flavors into the mix.
According to The New York Times, frozen yogurt sales rose more than 200% per year from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s—in 1990 alone 117.6 million gallons of fro-yo were produced. But a steady decline of interest in the dish would cut that number down by more than 50% by the year 2005, seemingly signaling the slow disappearance of this trendy dessert. But that was also the same year Pinkberry and Red Mango hit the scene.
Frozen yogurt’s second wind
On its website Pinkberry calls itself “the original frozen yogurt that reignited the category,” and it’s not wrong. Opening in 2005 in Los Angeles when socialite-spotting was at a peak, the fro-yo brand not only rode the wave of diet culture but also celebrity association. This 2007 blog post might as well say, “I saw Paris Hilton eating Pinkberry so I decided to eat Pinkberry.”
Then there was Red Mango. Similarly on its website it claims credit for the resurgence of the fro-yo fad: “You know that frozen yogurt mania sweeping the nation? Yeah, we started it.” And similarly the brand gained attention of celebrities who catapulted it into the spotlight—it was widely reported in 2008 that Leonardo DiCaprio had a Red Mango machine in his office.
Perhaps it was this anticipation for paparazzi that these chains made another huge shift in the industry: aesthetics. While TCBY leaned into the family-friendly ice cream shop designs and decor, Pinkberry and Red Mango decorated their shops like Instagram traps before instagram was even invented, cashing in on poppy colors and sleek logos.
And according to Taste, it was in 2008 that the self-serve, multi-handle frozen yogurt model was born. Where as Pinkberry and Red Mango only offered two different flavors to top, places like Menchie’s and Yogurtland were now about innovating with the flavors of fro-yo. It became a battle of options vs. clout: did you want to try as many flavors as possible, or did you want to frequent the same fro-yo shop as Lindsey Lohan?
Other brands tried to get in on the action, like Sweetgreen, which included frozen yogurt on its original menu when the business opened in 2008. But by 2014, it abandoned its “Sweetflow” brand, around the same time that other ice-cream-related trends were taking off—in 2016, major brands like Ben & Jerry’s introduced dairy-free ice cream flavors, and by 2017 Halo Top “light ice cream,” which also comes in dairy-free flavors, became the best-selling pint of ice cream. The reign of fro-yo, it seemed, came to an end again.
What is the future of frozen yogurt?
This timeline suggests that frozen yogurt is poised for a comeback—based on past patterns it re-enters the zeitgeist in a new form every 15 years or so. And according to Fortune Business Insights, the industry is seeing a steady incline in sales that don’t quite qualify as a boom but indicate that by 2028 it will go from generating $1.6 billion a year to $2.14 billion a year.
And why shouldn’t frozen yogurt get its due again? Every generation should get to experience piling gummy bears and cereal bits and fresh fruit alike onto a mound of tart, frozen goodness. It seems like an activity poised for the TikTok generation, with users hacking their way through the best combinations of flavors or cheating the scales to get the best monetary deals. I’m ready for the future that the name Forever Yogurt promises.