Following on from the success of smoothies and juice bars, the latest US craze to hit our shores is frozen yogurt. Rosie Birkett talks to those leading the trend in the UK.
Frozen yogurt is the healthy alternative to ice-cream that has been a fashionable food trend in the US for quite some time. Although not a product likely to become popular among the 15% of the UK population suffering from lactose intolerance, the product is gaining momentum in the form of some new lean, green, frozen yogurt operators.
SNOG is a frozen yogurt company that was founded in May last year by a group of savvy shareholders who - riding on the back of the popularity of the juice bar/smoothie wave - saw a gap in the market for a frozen, healthy treat. It has opened three stores in London - South Kensington, Soho and Westfield - in the last 18 months, with a flagship Covent Garden outlet planned for the autumn.
But this, according to co-owner Tristan Pestana, was not as rapid a development as the group had planned. "It has been a fairly quick expansion, but not quite as fast as we expected," he says. "We're hoping that by next year we'll have rolled it out across the rest of the country."
Though an American concept - the frozen yogurt market in the US is worth a whopping $8.1b (£4.9b) - SNOG uses wholly British and organic ingredients to make the yogurt, which it sweetens with agave nectar rather than sugar, appealing to both provenance- and health-conscious consumers.
Another start-up business tapping in to this market is Frae - meaning "from" in old Scottish - a frozen yogurt outlet that was set up in Angel, north London, in May by entrepreneurial former corporate lawyers and university friends Donald Murray and Martyn Pollock, both originally from Scotland. Murray says that while holidaying in New York he discovered the Pink Berry and Red Mango phenomenon, two of the US's major frozen yogurt chains.
"We kept seeing queues out the door and, like Starbucks, it has become very big, very quickly in the US," he says. "We'd always wanted to start our own company and this struck us as very new and something we could introduce to London. We managed to get enough funding and put a lot of thought into how we were going to make the concept different to its US counterpart by using wholly organic milk fresh from the farm and berries for toppings sourced from Scotland. "
Twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur Leo Bedford also spotted a gap in the market and started his own company, YuForia, selling natural frozen yoghurt in Covent Garden market.
"I visit New York quite a lot as I have friends over there and they dragged me along to a frozen yoghurt place when I was over there and I loved the stuff. It's health conscious, tasty and has a cool vibe, so when I got back I looked into where I could get it and saw that there were only one or two operators doing it, so I saw an opportunity. I wanted to bring it to London and open a store that reflects the sorts of things I'm into - which is why there are no artificial flavours and it's all served in biodegradable corn starch," he says.
"It's been really well received but the biggest challenge for us has been raising the profile of frozen yoghurt as it's not something that is well known over here. We've had to usher people in and give them samples, but once they've tried it they love it."
Pestana and Murray both describe SNOG and Frae's products as having a "trendy, contemporary" cult following and being a "lifestyle" for their customers. "We have people who'll visit our stores three times a day," says Pestana. "There are people who'll have a SNOG for their breakfast and dinner, and some who just like it as a snack - it becomes a bit of a craving for lots of people."
But as novel as turning around to your work colleagues to proclaim that you're "off for a quick snog" might be, surely this chilly foodstuff is a summer romance rather than a year-long indulgence?
Not so, according to Murray. "The feedback we've had from our customers so far and the repeat custom has given us confidence. We'll also be marketing our organic coffee a bit more come the winter. We've taken encouragement from the fact that there are queues outside Pink Berry in New York even when it's snowing."
Pestana agrees: "Funnily enough, one of our busiest days this year was when it snowed - we had a queue going out of the door." This might have something to do with SNOG's outlets, which, all individually-designed by trendy, nascent designers, are something of a draw in themselves.
"There aren't many juice bars where you can sit for hours and enjoy the product," Pestana says. "Everyone's getting a bit tired of the whole café culture and this is definitely going to be the next big thing."
Whether green tea flavoured frozen yogurt served in design-led surroundings has the wherewithal to usurp the centuries of café culture in London is another question entirely, but frozen dairy product supplier Jim Valenti, from Criterion Ices, agrees that UK consumers are getting more of a taste for the stuff.
"We've definitely seen an increase in demand," he says. "It's become more popular and we've even won two Great Taste Awards for our frozen yogurt. People really enjoy it once they try it - they like the cultured taste."
Valenti supplies delicatessens, food shops, farmers' markets and mid- to high-range restaurants such as Christopher's in London with the product, but he admits that "the Michelin brigade" tend to make their own.
"We supply a deli with it and the owner always runs out," he says. "In terms of peak times to sell it, people eat it all year round, but it tends to do better in the summer because, as a rule, restaurants are busier. There's also a Christmas peak."
Valenti adds that most operators tend to sell frozen yogurt as part of a frozen range that also includes ice-cream, but those opening up purely frozen yogurt-based outlets are talking up the difference between the two products - the fact that frozen yogurt tends to be lower in fat.
"There have been more and more good artisanal ice-cream makers opening up lately and it seems to be part of that new movement - it's a similar product. We still sell more ice-cream than we do frozen yogurt but it's certainly becoming a bigger part of what we do."
But for Murray it's about emphasising the difference between ice-cream and yogurt. "One of the trends we've identified is that ice-cream sales are dwindling," he explains.
"We're a healthy alternative - everyone's very health-conscious these days and we see ourselves tying in with that. There's an increased awareness of the right things to eat and our product embraces that - we have toppings including fruits and goji berries."
While Frae can't claim, as SNOG does, to be sugar free - it uses sugar from organic sugar cane to flavour its yogurt - Murray is keen to point out its green credentials.
"We're great believers in everything in moderation and the sugar is there because when you strip out fat you need something to lift it so we use enough sugar to bring it back to a fresh taste."
Frae's spoons are biodegradable while its pots are made from sustainably managed forestry in the UK. "We wanted to have corporate backbone in a sea of corporate conglomerates and wanted to spread eco messages,"
Murray explains. "We could have gone down a wildly different route, opened in Leicester Square and gone off to Taiwan for cheap plastic packaging. But we wanted to build up a personality in a local area - build a rapport with customers and show them that we're not just another Starbucks. People are coming in and they can't believe we're a start-up company and we take that as a compliment."
While Pestana and Murray are understandably quick to claim that frozen yogurt is going to be "the next big thing" in the UK, whispers of Red Mango launching in London next summer and an increase of openings like Gaucho's funky Freggo ice-cream bar in July, seem to hint to a rise in popularity for specialist frozen ice outlets. Are they scared of being ousted by the competition? Not a jot.
"It will be great if the big brands land here," says Murray. "They are huge names in the frozen yogurt sphere will benefit us greatly as it will create awareness around the brand. We don't have the sort of budgets they have to market and advertise, so it will help get frozen yogurt out there."
SAVOUR THE FLAVOUR
The natural yogurt ice goes well with honey and almonds or with maple syrup and toasted pine nuts. Yogurt ices generally go well with fresh fruits or as part of a selection with dairy ices and sorbets.
Criterion Ices delivers its Yodel frozen yoghurt directly from its Suffolk creamery, or its London depot, and supplies nationally through Stratford Fine Foods.
FLAVOUR popularity varies season to season for the [Cooliciousfrozen yoghurt brand from Taste Trends which supplies two types - ice-cream style and tangy.
Among the ice-cream style flavours, Vanilla dominates the number one slot because it's a good all-rounder. Strawberry ranks as number two in summer with chocolate in third position, although these two switch places in winter when chocolate is perceived as more indulgent and a comfort.
The company's Naturally Tangy Frozen Yogurt comes in natural flavour only, and while Green Tea is a very popular flavour in the US, it has not proven a success in the UK.
Both products can be incorporated into desserts such as sundaes and used to make smoothies and healthy shakes.