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Frozen yogurt's self-serve rebirth

Back in the '90s, frozen yogurt was all the rage.

For a few years, yogurt shops seemed to be on every corner. Everyone from high school kids to Jerry Seinfeld (who was then also all the rage) went wild over its low-fat creamy goodness.

But then the fervor died down.

One of the industry's biggest players, TCBY, has been in business for over 30 years. At the height of the '90s boom, TCBY boasted a portfolio of over 3,000 shops in the United States.

As the market shrank, shops closed. Though TCBY maintained a presence nationwide, only about 600 shops weathered the frozen-yogurt downturn.

Two decades later, frozen yogurt is a big deal again. According to the market research firm NPD Group, in the fall of 2011 there were 4,765 frozen-yogurt stores in the U.S. -- 31 percent more than were open five years earlier.

Today, frozen-yogurt shops look a little different than they did during the '90s. Free Wi-Fi and comfortable seating draw customers, especially when the weather's just too hot for coffee.

Low-fat or no-fat yogurt isn't enough anymore -- the new purveyors promote gluten-free varieties, healthful toppings, probiotics, and live and active cultures.

The frozen yogurt of the 21st century certainly tastes different. Tangy flavors and those made with Greek yogurt sit alongside traditional sweet options.

Mandy Higgs, a Baltimore mom and regular customer at Towson's Tutti Frutti, likes the new frozen yogurt. "I love the tangy flavors," she says. "They're not overly sugary -- just sweet enough to taste like dessert. I'm also a huge fan of the healthy toppings, like mango, blueberries and granola."

Perhaps the most noticeable change: These days, you serve yourself.

Numerous self-serve shops, including national franchises like Menchie's and Yogi Castle, have opened in the Baltimore area over the past few years. At these locations, customers pour their own yogurt, add toppings themselves, then pay by the ounce. Prices range from about 40 cents to more than 50 cents per ounce.

TCBY began opening self-serve locations in 2010, including a shop in Belvedere Square. "Consumers were beginning to demand more control over what they eat," says Greg Allison, senior director of global brands and innovation for TCBY.

For Higgs, self-service means that she, her husband, Oliver, and their 3-year old son, Graham, can each choose their own flavors and toppings without being wasteful. "We each get our own bowl," she says, "and can get exactly the amount of yogurt we want."

With 70 new locations opened, and another 100 scheduled to start up over the next year, TCBY is betting on the self-serve model. According to Allison, consumers want "the added convenience that comes from assortment and choice."

So grab a spoon and dig in with this guide to Baltimore-area frozen yogurt shops.

Gabriella Demczuk, Baltimore Sun
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