October 18, 2007 / 3:28 PM / 10 years ago

LA's pricey yogurt with celeb fans set to expand

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - It’s fat free, has a celebrity following and its own tune, and it’s likely to be coming to a city near you very soon.

It’s a tart but sweet frozen yogurt called Pinkberry and it has taken Los Angeles by storm since the first store opened two years ago in hip West Hollywood serving up pricey portions with customized toppings.

Despite no advertising, fans regularly line up round the block to get their fix of Pinkberry’s “swirls of chilly bliss with a distinct pouty peak,” causing the Los Angeles Times to dub it “the taste that launched a 1,000 parking tickets.”

Now, thanks to an infusion this week of $27.5 million from venture capital group Maveron, Pinkberry is expected to expand rapidly beyond its 28 Los Angeles and five New York stores.

Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks -- the world’s biggest coffee shop chain -- is one of the men behind the financing. Pinkberry consumers, he said, have “spread an authentic word-of-mouth endorsement that’s enabled the brand to become a cultural phenomenon.”

The brain-child of Korean American restaurateur Shelly Hwang and kick boxer turned architect Young Lee, the influx of cash will enable Pinkberry to expand as a franchise both across the United States and into international markets. Pinkberry spokesman Jeff Rose declined to give details of the plans.

Pinkberry’s spare, pale green, Philippe Starck-inspired stores have become a hot spot for celebrity watchers. Paris Hilton, Jerry Seinfeld, Salma Hayek and Reese Witherspoon have all been spotted feasting on tubs of plain or green tea “fro-yo,” sprinkled with toppings ranging from strawberries and mango to chocolate chips and fruity pebbles.

A “groupie corner” on the yogurt’s Web site is a nod to the cult status of the product, whose recipe is secret.

At 70 calories per serving (without the chocolate chip toppings), the cholesterol-free yogurt has proven a hit with Angelenos who obsess about their weight more than their pocket books. Prices start at $2.50 and rise to $8.

“I think it appeals to people in Los Angeles, particularly women, because it is fairly low calorie compared to most desserts,” said Pat Saperstein, a food blogger for EatingLA.com. “I see a line out the door of my local store every single night.”

The brand has already inspired imitators with names like Kiwiberri, Red Mango and Berri Good, and an army of addicts.

“I would get Pinkberry IV’d into my veins if I could,” wrote food blogger Rosie O‘Neill, an early convert.

But Saperstein had doubts about the global appetite for Pinkberry.

“It is really hard to imagine it could have as much impact as something like coffee, which so many people have every day no matter what the season. I think in colder parts of the world it might not be as popular,” she said.

But in sunny Los Angeles, fans are already hooked.

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