The Fro-Yo Frenzy

A wave of Korean-owned frozen yogurt shops has hit Southern California. But some say these businesses are alarmingly similar to Red Mango, a popular fro-yo chain in Korea.

By Michelle Woo

Dan Kim takes frozen yogurt seriously. Inside a testing kitchen in a Los Angeles corporate office, he pulls down a stainless steel lever and carefully catches a smooth swirl in a small white container.

“This is the original,” says Kim, president of Red Mango, Inc., making sure the frozen concoction tops off with a perfect point. “I don’t know how they make their product, but ours is authentic. This is a different class.”

Next month, Red Mango will open its first U.S. location in Westwood, Calif. With its signature red “O” splashed on 140 storefronts in South Korea, the frozen yogurt chain is ready to introduce itself to the American consumer.

But, as Kim knows, the debut won’t be easy.

Red Mango is squeezing into a land that’s already been saturated with frozen yogurt hype. In the past year or so, Southern California has become somewhat of the fro-yo capital of the universe, with folks across town downing thousands of cups of the fruit-topped frozen confection.

Taking center stage in the frenzy is the Korean-owned Pinkberry, Red Mango’s primary competitor. Its story is a blend of inspirational, little-business-that-could entrepreneurship and catty drama. And its concept is strikingly similar to Red Mango’s.

In this saga that has captured the eye (and taste buds) of foodies, the media and all those curious about the nonfat snack sensation, things are about to stir up.

The “It” Fro-Yo

In January 2005, Pinkberry opened as a 650 square-foot shop in West Hollywood. Curious folks walked in, liked what they tasted and came back for more. Soon attracting a cult-like following, Pinkberry, referred to by its addicts as “Crack-berry,” now has 11 locations in Southern California and three in New York. People have waited up to an hour in the summer sun for a serving of the tangy treat, dubbed “the leg warmer of food trends” by the New York Times.

Pinkberry serves only two flavors of frozen yogurt: plain and green tea. The taste is tart, unlike the ultra-sweet fro-yo of the ‘80s and ‘90s, made popular by dessert chains such as TCBY. Some customers even say it’s reminiscent of the miniature, foil-topped yogurt drinks in Japan, China and Korea, often served as an after dinner refresher. Customers can add on toppings such as fresh fruit, nuts or, if they’re in need of a sugar kick, Fruity Pebbles cereal.

Celebrity gossip site described the Pinkberry experience as “spiritual”: “You’re just so happy while eating it that you release serotonin in exorbitant amounts and you really feel high,” one anonymous fan proclaimed. Food blogger Colleen Cuisine summed up the taste like this: “My first bite of Pinkberry felt distinctly sour. … But the sweetness creeps up on you by the second or third bite and it starts to taste … simply amazing.”

Each location has its own herd of regulars, consisting of health nuts, college kids or families. At 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night, Pinkberry’s Melrose location is packed with young professionals, hipsters and model-types carrying designer bags and tiny dogs. This particular spot attracts a celebrity clientele, boasting Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Leonardo DiCaprio as customers.

Sitting at an outdoor table are Lisa Malchicoff and Patrick Friend, both 23. They stop by Pinkberry once or twice a week for an order of green tea frozen yogurt topped with kiwis and strawberries. This time, they also added on mochi balls, an un-publicized, off-the-menu item.

“We would come here every day if we could,” says Malchicoff, who works in public relations.

Which Came First?

Some have raised their eyebrows at Pinkberry’s success. John Shim, 26, a restaurant owner in Corona, Calif., lived in Korea two years ago and would frequent his local Red Mango after work and on the weekends. Years later, after he returned to the U.S., he heard about Pinkberry and decided to check it out.

“I was confused as to why people were making such a big deal,” says Shim, who started a blogging group called “Pinkberry’s just a pale imitation of Red Mango.”

“It’s not anything to write home to mom about. Red Mango puts out a far superior product to Pinkberry’s. It’s too bad that people are going to think Red Mango is a copycat, when really, it’s the other way around.”

Red Mango, owned by a team of Korean investment bankers, had always planned to make its way to the United States, but because of how quickly the company was growing, an American launch was put on hold.

Then when executives noticed a U.S. frozen yogurt franchise that seemed to mirror Red Mango’s concept right down to the sherbet-hued color scheme, they were stunned.

“They said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s our product,’” recalls Kim, who began running Red Mango’s U.S. operations last year.

Line the two companies up side by side and the similarities become apparent. Korea’s Red Mango locations are embellished with what Kim calls “Asian pop” finishings — interiors decked with spring colors, glass-covered walls and display cases filled with quirky and charming goods. Step into a Pinkberry shop and you’ll find the same.

Both companies serve tangy frozen yogurt that has zero fat and less than 30 calories per ounce. Both offer similar toppings, including the same eight fruits, nuts and cereal (although Pinkberry offers chocolate chips, while Red Mango’s unique item is granola). And both products are comparably priced. At Pinkberry, it’s about $5 for a medium cup of the original flavor and three toppings. Some people have even found that a Pinkberry fro-yo serves as an inexpensive meal replacement. Call it the new L.A. diet.

Kim says it is difficult to prove that Pinkberry copied Red Mango’s concept, and Pinkberry owner Young Lee asserts that the inspiration for the shop came not from Korea, but from Europe and Hawaii.

Lee says that 16 years ago, he traveled to Vienna, Italy, where he came across a little gelato stand and ordered a cup.

“The taste was so good, I couldn’t forget it,” Lee says. “It was that tangy, sour yogurt taste.”

Later, during a vacation in Hawaii, Lee visited the Dole Plantation, which was selling soft-serve ice cream topped with freshly chopped pieces of pineapple. He says he was taken by the concept.

When plans for an English tearoom fizzled, Lee and his girlfriend, Shelly Hwang, decided to open a frozen yogurt shop instead. Hwang produced the recipe and Lee, an architect, worked on the décor. He says the interior of Pinkberry is like a toned-down nightclub, with design concepts drawn from Scandinavia and Finland.

The original, parking-challenged location in West Hollywood became such a hit that some didn’t mind racking up two or three parking tickets on the same visit. The shop was sent extra police enforcement to control crowds while irked neighbors marched to city council meetings to voice concerns about parking problems and litter.

For Lee, the solution was simple. They would just open more shops. Lee says he hopes to open about 500 Pinkberry locations across the country in the next few years.

Today, the taste of the frozen yogurt still reminds Lee of that Italian vacation.

“I want to make it very clear that none of the products in that cup come from Korea,” Lee says. “The only thing Korean [about Pinkberry] is me.”

The Followers

Following the rise of Pinkberry, a new crop of Korean-owned fro-yo shops have come into play. In the Los Angeles area, there is now Céfiore, Mr. Snowberry, Roseberry, Yogurt Queen and YogurtLand, all run by Korean Americans hoping to cash in on a successful mom-and-pop business model.

Head further south and you’ll find Beach Berries, a shop owned by Jade and Paul Kim. Located across from the Huntington Beach Pier, the business has witnessed long lines of health-conscious Orange County folks craving a taste of its plain fro-yo and natural add-ons.

“The concept comes from Korea,” Jade says frankly. “Pinkberry’s formula is more sour. Customers who have been there say ours is creamier.”

While imitation may be a form of flattery, it’s been reported that Pinkberry has been not so friendly to the competition.

Last year, a fro-yo feud unfolded between Pinkberry and Kiwiberri, a California frozen yogurt company with very similar offerings. Opened last summer by John Bae and Edward Manolos, Kiwiberri has been accused of being a blatant Pinkberry rip-off.

“It’s absolutely a copy,” says Bree Crocetti, 31, a private chef in Los Angeles, who visited the fro-yo shop last September. “It clearly has the same color scheme. When you compare the two, Kiwiberri is definitely not as good. Their yogurt looks kind of translucent.”

As for the dispute, Pinkberry’s legal counsel sued Kiwiberri for copying its “berry” name. Bae filed a police report against Lee for verbally threatening him. Bae did not return KoreAm’s calls for comment.

Both of Kiwiberri’s Los Angeles locations have since shut their doors, although one carries a sign saying it will be featured on the Food Network’s “Restaurant Makeover” TV series. There are still two Kiwiberri locations in operation and the Web site vaguely notes plans to expand nationally.

“You can’t just rip off someone’s idea,” says Lee, who has posted no-photograph signs at all Pinkberry locations, in fear that someone might clone the interior design. “[But] the copycats have not been very well embraced. That cool, hip vibe — not everybody has it.”

Red Mango is also on the lookout for imposters. Bloggers on dished that a place called California Roll & Sushi in Los Angeles was selling frozen yogurt from a machine with a Red Mango logo. Kim discovered that the machine was counterfeit and lawyers are currently taking legal action.

New Shop On The Block

“Am I nervous? From a purely competitive standpoint, sure,” says Kim, back at the Red Mango headquarters. “Los Angeles is a saturated market. But I really think our product is better. [Pinkberry] just validated the idea that the product would be widely accepted by the American consumer.”

Whereas Pinkberry is known for its eye-popping colors and futuristic design, the look of the new Red Mango in Westwood will be more subdued. Kim describes the atmosphere as “The Coffee Bean meets Whole Foods,” with dark wood furniture and plush couches. There will be an enclosed “friendship booth,” where customers can plug their iPods into a speaker system and enjoy their frozen snack to the sounds of their own customized playlists.

Red Mango will be rolling out an aggressive marketing campaign, backed by billboards, celebrity endorsers, special promotions and a MySpace page — hoopla that Pinkberry never needed. Its plan is to open three locations by the end of June and 10 by the end of the year.

There’s no telling where fro-yo cravers will ultimately flock to, although diehard fans of Pinkberry will be hard to lure away.

“We’re definitely late,” Kim says. “We’re at least a year behind. It’s going to be a very interesting challenge.”

The Yogurt Lineup


Opened: January 2005

Where: 12 locations in Southern California and three in New York

Run by: Young Lee, an architect, and Shelly Hwang, a business school graduate

Interior: A futuristic atmosphere of sherbet-hued walls, pebble floors, Le Klint-inspired hanging lamps and Phillipe Starck ghost chairs

Fro-yo offerings: Original and green tea, with toppings such as fresh fruit, chocolate chips and Cap’n Crunch and Fruity Pebbles cereal. Chewy mochi balls available upon request

Calories: 25 per ounce

Taste: Tart and light


Opened: August 2006

Where: Locations in Los Angeles, Hollywood and Hawaii, with 15 more to come worldwide

Run by: Hans Kim, who is also the CEO of Japanese buffet chain Todai

Interior: Starkly minimalist, with bright white counters, light wood fixtures and Phillipe Starck-esque ghost chairs

Fro-yo offerings: Original (sour or plain), blackberry and green tea, with toppings such as fruit, red bean, cucumber and granola. Also offers “Snow Ice” (frozen yogurt and toppings mounted on shaved ice) and frozen yogurt smoothies.

Calories: 22 per ounce

Taste: Rich and citrus-y

Opened: July 2006

Where: Huntington Beach, Calif.

Run by: Health-conscious OC-ers Jade and Paul Kim.

Interior: A no-frills mom-and- pop locale with lime and orange walls and standard white tables and chairs

Fro-yo offerings: Original, green tea and strawberry, with toppings such as fresh and dried fruit, nuts and granola

Calories: About 22 per ounce

Taste: Creamy with a tart kick

Opened: December 2002 in Korea, first U.S. location will open in May

Where: 140 locations in Korea, 10 to open in the U.S. in 2007, the first in Westwood

Run by: President Dan Kim and CEO Brandon Jo, along with a board of directors that includes filmmaker Roy Lee and business attorney Ekwan Row

Interior: Like an upscale coffee shop with dark wood fixtures and plush couches

Fro-yo offerings: Original and green tea (they may rotate new flavors in the future), along with seasonal fresh fruit and dry toppings such as sliced almonds and Cap’n Crunch and Fruity Pebbles cereal

Calories: About 20 per ounce

Taste: Light and creamy with a subtly sweet tang


Opened: September 2006

Where: Two locations in Southern California, with plans to launch several more across the country

Run by: Founders John Bae and Edward Manolos

Interior: Pastel-hued walls and fixtures with signs highlighting the health benefits of frozen yogurt

Fro-yo offerings: Original, green tea, “kiwiberri” and strawberry flavors, along with fresh fruit and dry toppings such as cereal and mochi

Calories: Around 10 calories per ounce

Taste: Customers say the fro-yo leans toward the icy side