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Fast Times at the Flavor Convention

California Humor
by Josh Heller Mar 10, 2012
Musings from the national frozen yogurt and topping convention.

I CUT A LADY OFF ON KATELLA. You have to be brutal in Disneyland traffic. I’m not some goofy, dumbo out-of-towner looking to spend the day with Goofy and Dumbo, I came to the Disneyland hotel on business! Well, actually, I’m here for a friend who’s here on business.

An old buddy is opening a frozen-yogurt-by-the-ounce shop. He invited me and a few other guys to help him test yogurt flavors and toppings. I decided to come because: (1) I moderately enjoy sampling flavors and toppings; (2) It was an opportunity to spend time with a good friend; and (3) I thought that “Fast times at the Flavor Convention” would make an awesome title for an article.

My friends were already inside. I had to register before I could enter. Before I could even get to the registration booth, a man in a red polo hounded me to fill out raffle tickets. He would only leave me alone if I acquiesced, so I wrote my name on the back of some strips of paper.

I wondered if Israelis have some hidden kinship with frozen yogurt.

At the registration booth I couldn’t help but overhear three groups of Israelis speaking Hebrew. Southern California is home to a large Israeli community, but it seems like they own every frozen yogurt franchise in the San Fernando Valley. I wondered if Israelis have some hidden kinship with frozen yogurt. They’re from a summery climate; perhaps frozen yogurt is a refreshing reprieve from the heat of the sun. Or maybe they’re just into lucrative business trends.

And frozen yogurt in Southern California is a lucrative business trend. The current incarnation is the self-serve, soft-serve, add some toppings, and pay-by-the-ounce model popularized by Menchie’s. This mode evolved from the previous trend established by Pinkberry which focused on putting fresh fruit onto tart frozen yogurt. Pinkberry itself is said to be a knockoff of Korean chain Iceberry, but the founders say they were tapping into the American market by reviving the Great Frozen Yogurt Trend of the 1980s.

The dessert fit with Southern California’s saccharine, low-fat, fitness lifestyle and its popularity grew nationwide. Eventually every food court in North America had a frozen yogurt chain like I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! or TCBY (who shortened their name after a lawsuit by the former for having the similarly incredulous name: This Can’t Be Yogurt!)

Registrants came to this convention in hopes of discovering new tendencies and directions for the frozen yogurt market. Perhaps with a little bit of luck they could stumble upon the next popular mode for selling yogurt and become billionaires. We were here for the same reason.

I reunited with my friends as they were deciding whether the Tropical Raspberry tasted better than the Rainbow Melon. They let me try. Tropical Raspberry won on a technicality because Rainbow Melon had a weird after-taste.

The Israelis that I’d seen earlier were now standing behind us. I repeated my theories about Israelis and the froyo biz to my friends. The burgeoning entrepreneur said, “nah they’re probably just here because it’s a profitable enterprise — I mean, I’m Israeli, and that’s why I’m doing it.” We lingered at the booth for a few moments while he covertly listened to their Hebrew conversations to glean some potential trade secrets.

Over the loudspeaker an MC was trying to get the crowd hyped about all the social media seminars that this flavor convention had to offer. The fast-paced rhythm of his voice made me think that he was a professional convention MC. I wondered if he was skilled enough to be able to recycle lines from the Hunter’s Gun & Knife Show at the Vegan Peace Expo.

A candy salesman hollered at us to check out his wares.

“This is our number one Roca!”

“You’re going to love our generic Mini M&M’s!”

“You have got to try the new cinnamon streusel!!!”

“Yogurt covered raisins go great on frozen yogurt. It’s a yogurt OVERLOAD!”

Thinking with my sweet-tooth, I asked how much wholesale candy toppings we could buy. He said, “Well, we’re a by-the-ounce organization.” I laughed. That sounded like something an aspiring Tony Montana might say. We reluctantly walked away without having tasted the toffee tabs, choco-choozys, sour-souzas, or fat-free praline pockets.

We continued around the convention center. A young woman in a business suit standing behind a barrel of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Sauce beckoned me. I’d certainly seen chocolate sauce, strawberry sauce, and butterscotch sauce, but chocolate-peanut butter sauce was a first. She said it was specially formulated for yogurt. I asked her how they were able to get such a consistency. She again repeated that they were perfectly designed as a topping for yogurt. I glanced at the ingredients on the label: partially hydrogenated oils. Oh, duh, hydrogenated oils are a processed food conglomerates’ best friend!

At the next booth another representative of the topping biz showcased his dried fruits, berries, and coconuts. I asked if his products were natural. He smirked and said, “nothing here is natural.”

We walked around the corner to discover even more booths. These vendors only showcased products that were tangentially related to the yogurt biz. This was more of an if-your-yogurt-shop-isn’t-very-profitable-and-in-a-last-ditch-effort-you-try-to-find-other-products-to-sell kind of aisle.

A lady gave us a spiel about how sophisticated her mozzarella cheese-filled pretzels were. “Normally the cheese is on the top! But now the topping is inside!” Her mind would be blown if she ever discovered calzone. She also mispronounced “spiel.”

I sampled some vegetable soup from another booth. It got me thinking about opening a combination frozen yogurt and warm soup shop. Would this concept be the next highly-profitable evolution that everybody was looking for? Probably. But if I was going to do this I’d cut my costs by not sourcing from this vendor. Buying from a soup manufacturing factory on the other side of the country is pretty dumb considering that vegetable soup is the easiest thing in the world to make.

I pitched this business plan to my friend who flat-out dismissed it. I was feeling pretty blue until my name came over the loudspeaker. The MC was seemingly excited to talk to me. He asked me where I was from and what my favorite flavor was. He continued asking me questions but for some reason was now calling me Paul.

“Say Paul, what was your favorite part of the convention?”

“Oh, well I just love the whole thing” I said while trying to be diplomatic.

He said “congratulations you’re a big winner today at this flavor convention” as he handed me a $25 Best Buy gift card.

I said “I’ve never won anything before” which is the lie you’re supposed to tell when you win things to uphold the illusion of humbleness.

I didn’t walk away from the flavor convention with any brilliant insight into the frozen yogurt market, but I did walk away with a gift card which I’ll probably use to buy a printer cartridge. And while that won’t make me a billionaire, it will make it easier to print flyers in the event that my dog runs away. And at the end of the day reuniting with a lost dog is worth all the yogurt franchise money in the world.

(If that MC is reading this, contact me. I’ll sell you the previous paragraph to use for the upcoming Dog & Cat Lovers Convention on the ¢heap!)

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