JUST AFTER 7 O’CLOCK on a March evening, the lights go down in a function room at Maggiano’s Little Italy in the Back Bay. As a video flickers to life on a projection screen, an upbeat female voice begins narrating. “If you’re like most people, you’ve probably dreamed of what it would be like to be your own boss, make your own schedule, call the shots, and reap the benefits of your hard work,” she says. As the audience picks at stuffed mushrooms and fried zucchini, she chirps on: “There’s never been a better time to take control of your future.”
In Hollywood’s most famous moment of career advising, Mr. McGuire pulls Benjamin Braddock outside by the pool to deliver just one word: plastics. The opportunity being described in this restaurant basement will require four: self-serve frozen yogurt.
The host of tonight’s franchising pitch is TCBY, which opened its first frozen yogurt shop in Arkansas in 1981. Although the chain would introduce the rest of the country to froyo, it had actually been in invented in Massachusetts a decade earlier, when an employee of the H.P. Hood dairy company sent regular yogurt through a soft-serve ice cream machine. A Harvard Square eatery called the Spa is said to have served the world’s first cone of “frogurt” on February 3, 1971.
Frozen yogurt went mainstream during the health craze of the ’80s, only to fizzle over the next two decades — a period in which TCBY franchisees were forced to close some two-thirds of the chain’s 1,500 stores. Now, however, a resurgence is upon us and TCBY is rebounding with a new formula: self-serve stores where customers can mix and match flavors, pick from dozens of toppings, and pay by the ounce. Since 2010, TCBY has opened 124 self-serve stores around the country — it expects to have about 100 more in development by year’s end — but not one in Massachusetts.
That’s why there’s a map at the front of the room, with circles highlighting potential locations all over Boston and the suburbs. There’s now just one TCBY in the state, an old-model counter-service store in Norwell, but the chain aims to open 25 or so new shops in the next three to five years. For an upfront investment starting at about $292,000, the 40 or so entrepreneurs gathered here at Maggiano’s are told they can put themselves on the path to riches, one cup of White Chocolate Macadamia at a time.
American consumers have always seemed particularly susceptible to food fads. For decades these enthusiasms have shown up in home kitchens (as evidenced by your dusty fondue pot) and on restaurant menus (where lobster mac and cheese has given way to lamb belly). Lately the most visible evidence of food faddism has played out in urban shopping districts and suburban strip malls, which are being flooded by stores dedicated to a single type of food. Not long ago, Anna’s Taqueria dominated the local burrito market. Today at an intersection not far from my home, Chipotle, Moe’s Southwest Grill, and Taco Bell somehow coexist within a few hundred yards. Meanwhile, Boston has at least a half-dozen competing cupcake stores and, to judge from the habits of the downtown lunch crowd, nowadays virtually any food can attract a cult following, so long as it’s sold through the window of a truck.
Frozen yogurt just happens to be the craze du jour. Los Angeles-based Pinkberry opened its first Massachusetts store in 2010 and now has 11. The website of Orange Leaf, a chain from Oklahoma, lists 37 locations in this state as either already open or “coming soon.” During the second half of 2012, two competing self-serve froyo stores, iYo and Orange Leaf, opened within several hundred feet of each other in Somerville’s Davis Square — while a third, another Pinkberry, is slated to open on the same block in the fall. “The Boston area is way beyond froyo overload,” the food blog Eater declared in April, and that was before the fancy new Walgreens in Downtown Crossing started selling it.
Yet more stores open. That’s partly because, in the strange economics of retail food, new competitors don’t necessarily eat into one another’s profits. It’s also because of the overconfidence that’s a necessary personality trait for entrepreneurs: Most people opening froyo stores will agree that some stores will fail while simultaneously insisting theirs will succeed.
“Is Pinkberry competition? Sure they are. Is iYo? Sure they are,” says Dave Pierre, co-owner of the Orange Leaf in hotly contested Davis Square. “But we’re unique enough that we can survive. I’m not going anywhere. I will outperform my competitors any day or night.”Continued...