You can't lick a treat that tastes as good as ice cream but promises to be a healthier alternative, which could explain why three self-serve frozen yogurt stores have popped up within a two-mile radius in Waterford and East Lyme.
Waterford's Cowlick's Creamery opened in the spring, followed in quick succession by The Fresh Cow near Flanders Four Corners in East Lyme and Peachwave Frozen Yogurt at the Midway Plaza Shopping Center in Niantic.
"It's good for you," said Diane Dudla of Old Lyme, who stopped into The Fresh Cow one day last week. "You can make it as healthy as you want."
"I like the different varieties," added her husband, James. "I like the hot fudge."
The joy of toppings
The Dudlas nicely summed up the attraction of frozen yogurt: The health conscious can add fruits and nuts to the mix, while others are given topping choices that include Captain Crunch, Fruity Pebbles, Swedish Fish, M&Ms and other less than healthy offerings.
And self-serve is a big draw, too. Frozen yogurt fans can dole out just as much as they like of the soft-serve concoction into paper bowls or cones and then load up on toppings of their choice without having to wait for service.
"To be able to do it yourself gives you more control," said Tina Sands of Waterford as she headed into Cowlick's Creamery. "Frozen yogurt is kind of fun."
It's a less labor-intensive business for owners as well, since they don't have to pay a large staff to scoop ice cream or wait on tables. Many of the operations can run during slow periods with only one employee, though Bill Wild, who owns the Peachwave outlet, said during a busy weekend night he needs up to five workers to keep everything running smoothly.
Wild's operation, which has involved every member of his immediate family, is the largest of the sit-down frozen yogurt businesses in the region that have opened recently. He reports that business was brisk in the summer and has continued to be encouraging, particularly on weekends. In the summer, business was so strong that he kept 14 employees on the payroll.
"We were banging on Fridays and Saturdays," he said. "It was mind-boggling."
Wild, a longtime local resident who also is an executive for Jaypro in Waterford, credits the high-income demographics of East Lyme and the immediate area with his business' success. The proximity of middle-school athletic fields has been a plus as well, bringing in whole teams to celebrate victories or soothe the spirits of the defeated.
Plenty of flavors
Peachwave offers 14 flavors that rotate with the seasons and can be swirled together in different combinations, such as chocolate and peanut butter and pineapple and coconut. The favorite flavors of patrons, Wild reported, are cookies and cream, cupcake (during the summer), salted caramel and pistachio.
But Nicole Krol of Old Lyme, who owns The Fresh Cow with husband Justin, said the old standbys of chocolate and vanilla are still among her patrons' favorites.
"We try to offer as many toppings as we can," she added.
Patrons are still getting used to the self-serve aspect of frozen yogurt, so Krol said she often guides customers through the process. The toppings are tempting, and Krol said by the time a customer gets through piling them on the bill is usually about $5.
"After school is our busiest time of the day," she said.
Amy Yeomans, who owns Cowlick's with partner and fellow Waterford resident Tara Mazzella, said she has noticed a significant dropoff in the frozen yogurt business since the summer ended, which brings up the question of the sustainability of the business during Connecticut's sometimes frigid winters.
But Yeomans, whose business was inspired by the success of Frogeez Frozen Yogurt stores in Groton and Norwich, said she is planning to add soups, salads and bread bowls during the winter in an attempt to keep customers coming back, and she offers coffee, specialty teas and hot cocoa as well. Yeomans noted that Cowlick's, unlike the other operations, also offers ice cream.
"We always have vanilla and chocolate," she said. "We have ice cream for the crowd that doesn't like yogurt."
The three frozen-yogurt storeowners all said they came up with their business plans without knowing there was going to be so much competition popping up all at once.
"It's crazy," said Yeomans. "Hopefully, everybody's successful."
The frozen-yogurt craze may have been initiated in California, but the product's invention actually is credited to the Massachusetts-based company H.P. Hood with another nod to Boston-based Brigham's, which first packaged the product for retail sale. One of the selling points may be its health benefits versus ice cream, but the main attraction is the smooth taste - and the fact that self-serve shops offer customers the ability to create custom-made products.
Krol said frozen yogurt has less fat than ice cream and contains probiotics that can help digestion.
But for Tina Sands, the health factor isn't the main attraction. She and her husband Bob drive to Cowlick's once a week - for the taste, but also for the atmosphere.
"They've got a variety of flavors, and they're constantly changing it up," Sands said. "Everyone is so friendly."
Cowlick's has become a kind of community center, Sands said. A recent movie night, for instance, attracted about 100 people outside in back of the store, which is decorated with wooden cows and sprinkled with rocks and umbrellas, inviting patrons to sit and enjoy.
"It's bringing us back to when we were little kids," Sands said.