Frozen yogurt is hot: Shops spring up in Lexington

A freshly made frozen yogurt cup at the Orange Leaf on Tiverton Way. The self-serve chain has four stores in Lexington.
A freshly made frozen yogurt cup at the Orange Leaf on Tiverton Way. The self-serve chain has four stores in Lexington.

Leggings have made a comeback, Jon Bon Jovi is on tour again, and now Americans seem to be finding frozen yogurt, a quintessential '80s food fad, as sweet as ever.

At least eight fro-yo shops — most of them in a self-serve format with topping bars that stretch on and on and on — have opened in Lexington since last fall.

Orange Leaf was the first self-serve chain in the market and has quickly grown to four stores.

Fro-Jo's soon followed at Lexington Green, then Nati-Creme opened near the University of Kentucky campus.

Menchie's — the fastest-growing restaurant franchise in the nation, according to Restaurant Business Magazine — opened in May in The Plaza at Fayette Mall.

Those shops all work off a model in which customers fill up a bowl with any or all of a wide assortment of yogurt flavors, load it up with fruit, candy, nuts and other toppings of their choice, and then pay based on the weight of their creation. Most of the stores' prices are 42 to 45 cents an ounce.

And then there are the non-self-serve options, which include Yo2Go in Fayette Mall and the pioneer among the city's frozen yogurt shops, I Can't Believe It's Yogurt!, which has been in the Zandale Shopping Center since 1986.

In January, commercial real estate firm NAI Isaac announced that it planned to help bring Yogurtland, which has more than 125 stores, to CenterCourt, near UK's campus. At the time, NAI Isaac said the shop was expected to open by April 1. That didn't happen, but a large "coming soon" sign advertising the business still hangs outside the storefront.

Latest in a trend

And those are just the yogurt shops with a Lexington presence. Nationally, the chains Pinkberry (a favorite of Hollywood celebs, as seen in many pages of People magazine) and Red Mango have stores springing up everywhere.

"I'm amazed that it's kind of had a rebirth," Mara Kleczinski said of the frozen yogurt craze, as she enjoyed a treat at Orange Leaf one recent afternoon.

She said weekly after-school visits to Fro-Jo's and Orange Leaf have become a routine for her 13-year-old daughter, Abbey, and her friends.

"It's amazing," Abbey Kleczinski said as she scooped up a bite of yogurt topped with boba, an Asian popping candy.

"It's healthier than ice cream," added Katelyn Potter.

(Several shop owners played up the probiotic benefits of yogurt and mentioned that it has fewer calories.)

"I like the variety of toppings," Amy Bridges said.

Fro-Jo's co-owner Mark McGuire, a retired dentist, thinks all those factors play into the trend.

"It's the experience," he said. "It's fun and it's healthy and it's not very expensive."

Inspiration and expansion

Paula McGuire said she and her husband were inspired to open Fro-Jo's after visiting Yogurt Mountain in Birmingham, Ala., last May.

"It was crazy busy," she said. "People were sitting everywhere."

Paula McGuire had worked for a soft-serve machine distributing company in the early 1980s, so she had some knowledge of the industry. She did some research and decided she didn't need to buy a franchise; she could do it herself.

Now, she said, she's getting calls from people in other states asking for her help. She's considering working as a consultant to other do-it-yourself yogurt shop owners.

The owners of Lexington's four Orange Leaf shops — Evan Morris, Bryce Anderson and Jeremiah Sizemore — drew inspiration from the same Yogurt Mountain that the McGuires did.

Sizemore attended college in Birmingham and saw the success of that store, and he spent time in California and watched the yogurt craze take off there. The men, who graduated from Lexington Christian Academy together in 2001, had "always wanted to open a business together," Morris said. Anderson said that on July 14, 2010, he made a note in his journal: "Jeremiah mentioned opening a yogurt shop."

Three months to the day later, they opened Orange Leaf on Tiverton Way.

"We don't like to mess around," Morris said, grinning.

He's not kidding. When Graeter's Ice Cream closed its four Lexington stores late last year, the men quickly jumped in and took over three of the spots, with a little help from a group of investors that includes University of Kentucky Coach John Calipari.

The friends own the franchise rights for Orange Leaf throughout the state, and a year from now, they said, they'd like to have 15 stores.

They have chosen a location in Richmond near the Eastern Kentucky University campus and plan to move into Louisville as well.

Menchie's franchisees Patrick and Debbie Brookins just opened their Lexington store May 14, but they said they already have a spot picked out for a second store.

He said their store — with its bright lime-and-pink decor, round chalkboard and cast of cartoon characters including a smiling yogurt cone named Menchie — particularly appeals to families with children.

The shop offers pre-packed yogurt that customers can take home and a limited selection of Menchie's-themed merchandise, including lip balm and T-shirts. Most people leave with the cute plastic dishwasher-safe spoons that come with the yogurt.

"I don't think I've seen any spoons in the trash," said Brookins, who owns his own electronics business. His wife is a music teacher at Lexington Christian Academy.

Tucked away behind Kennedy Bookstore on Winslow Street (and within steps of the anticipated Yogurtland location) is Nicole Sloane's Nati-Creme, with nine self-serve yogurt flavors and more than 40 toppings.

Sloane is a UK grad and a former campus minister who started a cupcake shop, Naticakes, in Nashville in 2009 as a means of generating funding for the Natalie Wynn Carter Foundation, set up to honor her late niece, who died just before her second birthday. Natalie, whose nickname was Naticakes, was the daughter of Bryan and Erika Carter of Lexington.

Sloane said she added yogurt to the mix last summer. In November, she opened a yogurt shop in Lexington, and she said she hopes to add cupcakes in the future.

She said she has met with enough success that she is working on franchising both the yogurt and the cupcake enterprises.

Resurgence of a relic

During the summer of 1986, at the height of that frozen-yogurt craze, Lexington had two frozen yogurt shops and four more scheduled to open by the end of the year. The only one still standing is I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! in Zandale.

Owner Justin Zielke, who worked at ICBY as a teenager and bought the business eight years ago, said he thinks the new competition in town will "help us more than hurt us."

But he likens the current love affair with frozen yogurt to the onslaught of "superpremium" ice cream shops, including Cold Stone Creamery and Marble Slab, in the early 2000s.

"They had a line around Chevy Chase like you wouldn't believe," he said of the Cold Stone near High Street and Euclid Avenue.

Now, that shop is closed.

The owners of Lexington's newest yogurt shops think they have staying power, though.

"It's a fad right now, but I think it's one that will stay," said Paula McGuire of Fro-Jo's.

But Anderson, of Orange Leaf, said oversaturation in the market "is definitely a concern and worry."

"Companies fail; that's what happens," he said.

That's why, he said, he and his friends are moving quickly to have Orange Leaf be the first yogurt shop in some towns — they think there's room for only one.

"We want to be that one," Anderson said.