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
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.