It was in a Yogurtland that I understood the high-level psychological manipulation happening in the way frozen yogurt chains set up their topping bars. It was, paradoxically, the disorganization of this particular setup that convinced me. In other more devious frozen yogurt shops, the layout of the topping—starting with healthy fruit and nuts and then crescendoing into irresistible everything chocolate-covered—encouraged me to pile on more and more food for a heavier and thus, more expensive cup. But in this Yogurtland, the brownie bites came first, so I could see them for exactly what they were: a dessert all on their own, and not necessarily something to add to my “nutritious” snack.
Like many or at least like one or two people, I’ve wondered why the finally waning frozen yogurt boom even happened. TCBY had been rightfully understood as the country’s best yogurt for years, but suddenly in the late aughts, “froyo” was everywhere. In so many sectors of American life the economy was on the downturn, but seemingly every third shuttered business reopened as a punnily named source for frozen cultures. What kind of black magic was this? How did they get into our heads and hearts? I set out to break down the stores by the numbers.
I started with the topping bars. I emailed three major New York chains: 16 Handles, Yogurtland, and Pinkberry. I didn’t want to tip my hand and let them know that I was on to their vast, pay-by-the-ounce conspiracy, so I simply asked if the layouts are directed by corporate or chosen by the franchisees.
Here are their responses, ranked:
Froyo Chain Email Responses, Ranked
- 16 Handles, Yogurtland (tie)
What I learned from their emails was that all of these corporations claim to suggest arrangements but do not hold franchisees to them. In other words, they make sure that the basic elements are there, but when it comes to layout, each store is a Catholic schoolgirl affixing her One Direction pin to whatever part of her backpack she so desires. The froyo industrial complex puts up a solid front of being laid-back. However, a representative from Pinkberry did reply, “Why do you ask?” which is cagey, and can only suggest that they know that I’ve stumbled onto their backroom maneuvering. It earned them second place in email responses.
These vague, virtually identical emails made it clear that there was some massive collusion at work, something that went all the way to the top. To get to the bottom of this, I would have to visit the locations themselves, and eat as many free samples as possible, for research purposes. From this superscientific study of wherever I decided to go, I would get a sense of each chain’s individual philosophy.
Typical Pinkberry layout, from beginning to register:
The double fruit spread, combined with the fact that Pinkberry’s toppings and yogurt are doled out by a counter person—as opposed to self-service—seems to result in a healthier outcome than other experiences. Combinations I observed included mango yogurt with strawberries, plain yogurt with blueberries, mango yogurt with mochi, coffee yogurt all by itself. Also, judging from the dozens of unfinished fruit-and-yogurt combos overflowing Manhattan Pinkberry trashcans, their smaller sizes are just too much for their clientele.
Total Number of Toppings: 33
Favorite: Mochi, for originality.
Least favorite: Anything else parceled out to me by a stranger.
People You’ll Meet at Pinkberry:
Average 16 Handles layout, from beginning to register:
At the beginning of the froyo explosion, I was decidedly anti-yo. I didn’t get the “tart” Pinkberry flavor, and I thought it was a dumb snack for whatever we called basic bitches in 2008. When a 16 Handles opened in my former Brooklyn neighborhood, I harbored resentment. The store was bright and loud, with the Disney Channel perpetually blasting on the in-store TV. There were constantly crowds of teens and parents just slightly older than I am with screaming children, i.e. the two groups from whom I most fear judgment. But on a trip with friends, I discovered a new joy: exercising the privilege of adulthood by assembling a giant cup of candy while jealous six-year-olds looked on. After that, I was a regular. It was my Cheers.
It is from these many, many, many trips—during which I conducted my own research—that I determined it is actually impossible to judge the full layout of a 16 Handles topping bar. Each store has been scientifically engineered by the behavioral scientists to induce a fugue-like state: the consumer will black out in the fruit section and come to at the register with a cup that contains things like frosted animal cookies, brownie bites, and chocolate-covered potato chips. While some would argue that each additional topping is a conscious choice made by the consumer, the fact that each successive topping is more delicious and surprising (seriously, chocolate-covered potato chips!) than the last-and you’ve already added the last—means that customers have no choice but overdose and overflow.
I didn’t watch and see what anyone else got, because who cares? I was eating a giant cup of candy.
Total number of toppings: 42
Favorite: Chocolate-Covered Potato Chips
Least favorite: Wet Walnuts (What ARE these?)
People You’ll Meet at 16 Handles:
Average Yogurtland layout, from beginning to register:
Raspberries next to Oreo crumbles and half a dozen serving containers away from blueberries, which are flanked by walnuts and ground-up Twix. There is no rhyme or reason to this layout; it is delicious chaos. In Yogurtland’s disorganization, the secret of self-serve frozen yogurt comes to light: these aren’t really “frozen yogurt stores” at all. At least not in the way they are popularly conceived of; these are make-your-own sundae bars. The freedom is intoxicating. Here we’re free to decide our exact yogurt-to-topping ratio. We can skip fruit without judgment, and avoid the embarrassment of asking another living human for “just like, three gummy bears, but red ones, and then just a teaspoon of cookie crumbs, and then pile a bunch of strawberries on top.” After you pile and pile on, an uninterested cashier simply weighs the whole mess and sends you on your way. While Yogurtland is, on average, not as well organized as 16 Handles and therefore not as devious, they still allow for an unmitigated candy binge.
Total number of toppings: 41
Favorite flavor: Brownie Bites
Least favorite flavor: Junior Mints (I’ve been burned)
People you’ll meet at Yogurtland:
And another thing: Yogurtland, Pinkberry, 16 Handles, all three chains use pink and green in their logos. What are the odds that this can be chalked up to coincidence? I’m no oddsmakers but I’m going to say zero, or one hundred, or whatever it is when the odds are very bad, because it is definitely not a coincidence. So, why is this? Are pink and green colors that incite both hunger and lactose tolerance? Is Lilly Pulitzer somehow to blame? Wonderfully, when I typed this question into Google, there was one relevant site, which noted that usually when you have a thought like, “Why are so many FroYo places pink and green?” the internet has some kind of response, but in this case there was nothing. Well, baby, you’re it this time.
I’d guess that green is a color people use to relate to nature, and pink is a traditionally feminine color that calms people. Frozen yogurt is a healthy snack for women, and I know that because I have been in a lot of frozen yogurt places and I am now a superhealthy woman.