The Fro-Yo Frenzy
Korean-run frozen yogurt shops cause a stir
By Michelle Woo
Dan Kim takes frozen yogurt seriously. Inside a testing kitchen in a Los Angeles corporate office, he pulls down a stainless steel lever and carefully catches a smooth swirl in a small white container.
“This is the original,” says Kim, president of Red Mango, Inc., making sure the frozen concoction tops off with a perfect point. “I don’t know how they make their product, but ours is authentic. This is a different class.”
Next month, Red Mango will open its first U.S. location in Westwood, Calif. With its signature red “O” splashed on 140 storefronts in South Korea, the frozen yogurt chain is getting ready to introduce itself to the American consumer.
But, as Kim knows, the debut won’t be easy.
Red Mango is squeezing into a land that’s already been saturated with frozen yogurt hype. In the past year or so, Southern California has become somewhat of the fro-yo capital of the universe, with folks across town downing cups of the fruit-topped frozen confection.
Taking center stage in the frenzy is the Korean-owned Pinkberry, Red Mango’s primary competitor. Its story is a blend of inspirational, little-business-that-could entrepreneurship and catty drama. And its concept is strikingly similar to Red Mango’s.
In this saga that has captured the eye (and taste buds) of foodies, the media and all those curious about the nonfat snack sensation, things are about to stir up.
The “It” Fro-Yo
In January 2005, Pinkberry opened as a 650 square-foot shop in West Hollywood. Curious folks walked in, liked what they tasted, and came back for more. Soon attracting a cult-like following, Pinkberry, referred to by its addicts as “Crack-berry,” now has 11 locations in
Southern California and three in New York. People have waited up to an hour in the summer sun for a serving of the tangy treat, dubbed “the leg warmer of food trends” by the New York Times.
Pinkberry serves only two flavors of frozen yogurt: plain and green tea. The taste is tart, unlike the ultra-sweet fro-yo of the ’80s and ’90s, made popular by dessert chains such as TCBY. Some Asian American customers who have tried Pinkberry say it’s reminiscent of the
miniature, foil-topped yogurt drinks in Japan, China and Korea, often served as an after dinner refresher. Customers can add on toppings such as fresh fruit, nuts or, if they’re in need of a sugar kick, Fruity Pebbles cereal.
Celebrity gossip site PerezHilton.com described the Pinkberry experience as “spiritual”: “You’re just so happy while eating it that you release serotonin in exorbitant amounts and you really feel high,” one anonymous fan proclaimed. Food blogger Colleen Cuisine summed up
the taste like this: “My first bite of Pinkberry felt distinctly sour. … But the sweetness creeps up on you by the second or third bite and it starts to taste … simply amazing.”
Each location has its own herd of regulars, consisting of health nuts, college kids or families. At 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night, Pinkberry’s Melrose location is packed with young professionals, hipsters and model-types carrying designer bags and tiny dogs. This particular spot attracts a celebrity clientele, boasting Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Leonardo DiCaprio as customers.
Sitting at an outdoor table are Lisa Malchicoff and Patrick Friend, both 23. They stop by Pinkberry once or twice a week for an order of green tea frozen yogurt topped with kiwis and strawberries. This time, they also added on mochi balls, an un-publicized, off-the-menu item.
“We would come here every day if we could,” says Malchicoff, who works in public relations.
Which Came First?
Some have raised their eyebrows at Pinkberry’s success. John Shim, 26, a restaurant owner in Corona, Calif., lived in Korea two years ago and would frequent his local Red Mango after work and on the weekends. Years later, after he returned to the U.S., he heard about Pinkberry and decided to check it out.
“I was confused as to why people were making such a big deal,” says Shim, who started a blogging group called “Pinkberry’s just a pale imitation of Red Mango.”
“It’s not anything to write home to mom about. Red Mango puts out a far superior product to Pinkberry’s. It’s too bad that people are going to think Red Mango is a copycat, when really, it’s the other way around.”
For Red Mango, owned by a team of Korean investment bankers, the plan had always been to make its way to the United States, but because of how quickly the company was growing, an American launch was put on hold.
Then when executives noticed a U.S. frozen yogurt franchise that seemed to mirror Red Mango’s concept right down to the sherbet-hued color scheme, they were stunned.
“They said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s our product,'” recalls Kim, who began running Red Mango’s U.S. operations last year.
Line the two companies up side by side and the similarities become apparent. Korea’s Red Mango locations are decked with what Kim calls “Asian pop” finishings — interiors decked with spring colors, glass-covered walls and display cases filled with quirky and charming goods. Step into a Pinkberry shop and you’ll find the same.
Both companies serve tangy frozen yogurt that has zero fat and less than 30 calories per ounce. Both offer similar toppings, including the same eight fruits, nuts and cereal (although Pinkberry offers chocolate chips, while Red Mango’s unique item is granola). And both products are comparably priced. At Pinkberry, it’s about $5 for a medium cup of the original flavor and three toppings. Some people have even found that a Pinkberry fro-yo serves as an inexpensive meal replacement. Call it the new L.A. diet.
Kim says it is difficult to prove that Pinkberry stole Red Mango’s concept and no lawsuits have been filed. Pinkberry owner Young Lee asserts that the inspiration for the shop came not from Korea, but from Europe and Hawaii.
Lee says that 16 years ago, he traveled to Vienna, Italy, where he came across a little gelato stand and ordered a cup.
“The taste was so good, I couldn’t forget it,” Lee says. “It was that tangy, sour yogurt taste.”
Later, during a vacation in Hawaii, Lee visited the Dole Plantation, which was selling soft-serve ice cream topped with freshly chopped pieces of pineapple. He says he was by taken by the concept.
When plans for an English tearoom fizzled, Lee and his girlfriend, Shelly Hwang, decided to open a frozen yogurt shop instead. Hwang produced the recipe and Lee, an architect, worked on the décor. He says the interior of Pinkberry is like a toned-down nightclub, with design concepts drawn from Scandinavia and Finland.
The original, parking-challenged location in West Hollywood became such a hit that some didn’t mind racking up two or three parking tickets on the same visit. The shop was sent extra police enforcement to control crowds while irked neighbors marched to city council meetings to voice concerns about parking problems and litter.
For Lee, the solution was simple. They would just open more shops. Lee says he hopes to open about 500 Pinkberry locations across the country in the next few years.
Today, the taste of the frozen yogurt still reminds Lee of that Italian vacation.
“I want to make it very clear that none of the products in that cup come from Korea,” Lee says. “The only thing Korean [about Pinkberry] is me.”
Following the rise of Pinkberry, a new crop of Korean-owned fro-yo shops have come into play. In Los Angeles area, there is now CeFiore, Mr. Snowberry, Roseberry, Yogurt Queen and YogurtLand, all run by Korean Americans hoping to cash in on a successful mom-and-pop
Head further south and you’ll find Beach Berries, a shop owned by Jade and Paul Kim. Located across from the Huntington Beach Pier, the business has witnessed long lines of health-conscious OC folks craving a taste of its plain fro-yo and natural add-ons.
“The concept comes from Korea,” Jade says frankly. “Pinkberry’s formula is more sour. Customers who have been there say ours is creamier.”
While imitation may be a form of flattery, it’s been reported that Pinkberry has been not-so friendly to the competition.
Last year, a fro-yo feud unfolded between Pinkberry and Kiwiberri, a California frozen yogurt company with very similar offerings. Opened last summer by John Bae and Edward Manolos, Kiwiberri has been accused of being a blatant Pinkberry rip-off.
“It’s absolutely a copy,” says Bree Crocetti, 31, a private chef in Los Angeles, who visited the fro-yo shop last September. “It clearly has the same color scheme. When you compare the two, Kiwiberri is definitely not as good. Their yogurt looks kind of translucent.”
As for the dispute, Pinkberry’s legal counsel sued Kiwiberri for copying its “berry” name. Bae filed a police report against Lee for threatening him. Bae did not return KoreAm’s calls for comment.
Both of Kiwiberri’s Los Angeles locations have since shut their doors, although one carries a sign in front saying that it will be featured on the Food Network’s “Restaurant Makeover” TV series. There are still two Kiwiberri locations in operation and the Website vaguely notes plans to expand nationally.
“You can’t just rip off someone’s idea,” says Lee, who has posted no-photograph signs on the front of each Pinkberry location, in fear that someone might clone the interior design. “Though the copycats have not been very well embraced. That cool, hip vibe — not everybody has it.”
Red Mango is also on the lookout for imposters. Bloggers on Chowhound.com dished that a place called California Roll & Sushi in Los Angeles was selling frozen yogurt from a machine with a Red Mango logo. Kim discovered that the machine was counterfeit and lawyers are
currently taking legal action.
New Shop On The Block
“Am I nervous? From a purely competitive standpoint, sure,” says Kim, back at the Red Mango headquarters. “Los Angeles is a saturated market. But I really think our product is better. [Pinkberry] just validated the idea that the product would be widely accepted by the American consumer.”
Whereas Pinkberry is known for its eye-popping colors and futuristic design, the look of the new Red Mango in Westwood will be more subdued. Kim describes the atmosphere as “The Coffee Bean meets Whole Foods,” with dark wood furniture and plush couches. There will be an enclosed “friendship booth,” where customers can plug their iPods into a speaker system and enjoy their frozen snack to the sounds of their own customized playlists.
Red Mango will be rolling out an aggressive marketing campaign, backed by billboards, celebrity endorsers, special promotions and a MySpace page — hoopla that Pinkberry never needed. Its plan is to open three locations by the end of June and 10 by the end of the year.
There’s no telling where L.A. fro-yo cravers will ultimately flock to, although diehard fans of Pinkberry will be hard to lure away.
“We’re definitely late,” Kim says. “We’re at least a year behind. It’s going to be a very interesting challenge.”