When Diane Kahn and her husband moved to southern California three years ago, she was introduced to the self-serve frozen yogurt craze.
Places such as Yogurtland offered frozen yogurt your way. You could fill a bowl with whatever combination of frozen flavor you like and top it with anything from fresh fruit to chunks of candy bar. The people loved it. "These stores were on every corner," Kahn said. "I had never seen anything like it."
Deciding California wasn't for them, they ended up returning to Savannah. But they brought the concept with them. They opened Lovin' Spoons on the south side of Savannah in 2010. At about the same time, a similar self-serve place called La Berry opened. But the market on the cool treats heated up. In two years, Kahn has counted five others like them that have opened.
A Lovin' Spoons franchise opened in Bluffton near Kroger this year. Within five months, three more shops started selling self-serve frozen yogurt in southern Beaufort County.
The fro-yo invasion has spread to the Lowcountry. And there might not be an end in sight.
GROWING TREND Frozen yogurt has been popular for decades, starting with the rapid growth of TCBY in the '80s. The self-serve concept is a more recent development. The second-wave of fro-yo began in 2005 when Pinkberry established itself in California and became a hotspot for Hollywood starlets. Frozen yogurt again became the "in" thing. Similar stores started the self-serve idea, offering cups and charging by the ounce.
The idea started to spread across the country. Cheryl Kippel first came across a self-serve store in Charleston. The owner of three local retail stores felt there was a need for something similar on Hilton Head Island. She opened Watusi about a month ago on Pope Avenue. She expanded on the idea to make it a family-friendly deli and breakfast spot.
"Hilton Head was missing a nice, comfortable place -- a gathering spot," she said. "It can be a place kids can come after school and do their homework."
At about the same time, the Coligny area beach-side shop Surf's Up started selling self-serve fro-yo along with its boogie boards and bikinis. A Josie's frozen yogurt shop also is opening in the Best Buy Shopping Center in Bluffton.
To the fro-yo shop owner, it's not just a place that sells ice cream. There's entertainment value to it -- a hands-on element that appeals to kids. The sentiment appeals to health-conscious parents, too. Frozen yogurt is touted as healthier than ice cream -- and can be with its no-sugar-added, fat-free varieties -- but a fro-yo mountain of chopped up Snickers, hot fudge and sprinkles certainly isn't the healthy choice. Therein lies the beauty, owners say.
"You can make it what you want," Kippel said. "It can be as healthy as you want. It can cost $2 or $6. It's up to you."
HERE TO STAY?
But will customers always want it their way? The faster trends rise, the faster they tend to fall. Sales of frozen yogurt have increased about 6 percent a year since 2006, according to industry publications. The question now lies in oversaturation. Kahn said she's preparing for the point when interest cools off and fro-yo shops either go out of business or start getting bought up by larger franchises.
"I do think the concept is here to stay," she said. "We feel it has legs. But I do think there will be a shake out."
Kahn has tried to forge a specific identity with her shops to stand out. Lovin' Spoons has a groovy '60s vibe with psychedelia on the walls and memorable pop songs playing on the radio.
"We felt like a lot of these were interchangeable," she said. "We wanted ours to have a vibe to it."
When deciding to open her shop, Kippel saw a perfect meld of two ideas in self-serve frozen yogurt -- family fun and healthy eating. Tourists will always need fun things to do, and it's even better if that fun is healthy.
"The way everything is going is toward healthy food," she said. "Frozen yogurt won't go away."