Mon Berri (337 Bloor Street West)
The Bloor-Annex strip is now a miniature battleground in an international struggle for creamy, non-fat supremacy.
There are currently three frozen yogurt places operating on the 750-metre stretch of Bloor between Howland Avenue and St. George Street. From east to west: Mon Berri, at 337 Bloor Street West, which opened in winter 2009; Cefiore, at 362 Bloor Street West, which opened in September 2008; and the most recent addition, Menchie’s, at 511 Bloor Street West, whose grand opening on November 6 finally conferred trend status on the Bloor Street upscale fro-yo boom.
YoYo’s Yogurt Cafe, expected to open at 417 Bloor Street West in early December, will cement the Bloor-Annex retail strip’s position as winter-bound Toronto’s frozen dessert district. It will be the fourth.
Soft-serve frozen yogurt, while resurgent at the moment, isn’t, of course, new. Yogen Früz, founded in Thornhill during fro-yo’s initial wave of popularity, has been around since 1986. Other companies, like US-based TCBY, have also been selling yogurt since the eighties.
The new crop of yogurt shops have a sleeker, more modern ambiance than their predecessors, pitched towards a more urban clientele. And the product is slightly different than the fro-yo of old. It has, on average, about ninety calories to the half-cup and no fat at all. It comes in tart, adult-favoured flavours, melts almost instantly on the tongue, and leaves a fresh, creamy impression on the palate, but no aftertaste. It’s soft-serve, but it’s a little stiffer than ice cream, presumably because of the lack of fat. Toppings are generally plentiful and sometimes exotic.
YoYo’s Yogurt Cafe (417 Bloor Street West)
Nigel Koo, owner of Mon Berri, has a rotating selection of toppings amounting to about forty, he says, at any one time. Nuts and cereal and fresh fruit are all on offer, and so are more unusual items, like mochi: a sugary, glutinous rice treat popular in parts of Asia.
The store’s interior looks like something that might have been manufactured by Apple during their white plastic period. The floors are white, and so are the walls. Rows of rectangular LED panels hang at eye level, and pulse in rainbow colours with perfect synchronization. At the back of the store is a counter, behind which Koo doles out the yogurt. (He also sells crepes, cupcakes, cheesecake, waffles, coffee, and bubble tea.) Three young girls sit together on a banquette, Skyping with friends on an aluminum unibody MacBook while they wait for their orders. It’s cold and windy outside, and the store is otherwise empty, for the moment.
Koo, a thirtyish guy who wears a black baseball cap and a t-shirt branded with his store’s logo, decided on Bloor Street for its proximity to U of T. He’s an alumnus.
“When I saw this space, I was like, okay. Maybe I can open a non-alcohol type of place, for students, basically, who don’t want to get drunk.”
“It’s actually a Korean concept,” he says. Koo modeled his store on yogurt shops he first encountered while visiting South Korea, where a yogurt chain called Red Mango dominates. Though founded in 2002, Red Mango didn’t arrive in the States until 2007, when it opened its first store in LA.
Menchie’s (511 Bloor Street West)
Red Mango may very well have been the origin of the recent international surge in interest in frozen yogurt—although industry observers credit another chain with touching off the trend in North America.
Pinkberry opened its first location in West Hollywood in 2005. At the beginning, they served just two flavours of fat-free fro-yo: plain, and green tea. Business at the initial store was eventually so brisk that people who lived nearby began to complain to West Hollywood City Council about the neighbourhood’s rapidly worsening drifts of discarded yogurt cups. In 2007, a private-equity firm co-founded by Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz invested $27.5 million in the company, enabling Pinkberry to embark on an expansion spree. There are now Pinkberry shops in thirteen states, as well as in Mexico, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE. The chain has yet to crack Canada, but other fro-yo companies—part of a sizable crop of upstarts founded after Pinkberry had proven the viability of the business model—have started to make their way across the border. The recent developments on Bloor Street attest to this. With the exception of Mon Berri, which is independently owned and the only one of its kind, all of the Bloor Street yogurt shops belong to chains that are trying to gain a foothold in Canada.
Cefiore—another bright, white, Steve-Jobsian room—originated in San Francisco, and is a subsidiary of international sushi buffet franchiser, Todai. The Bloor Street location is the only one in Canada.
YoYo’s Yogurt Café is Canadian-owned. It opened its first shop in London, Ontario, in March 2010. Its Bloor Street location, expected to open in December, will be the second. Co-owner Jan King says she’s looking to open five more stores in and around Toronto by summer.
Like Koo, King says her company chose Bloor Street because it puts them close to their chosen clientele.
Cefiore (362 Bloor Street West)
“I would say our main demographic is the student group,” she says. “But we still have this huge diversity from people out on dates, to older couples, to the families coming in.” Nearness to U of T was a factor in the decision to move into the neighbourhood, as was foot traffic from the Annex.
“It’s another community we can get entrenched in,” King adds. YoYo’s differentiates itself from counter-service stores in that it’s completely self-serve. Its yogurts, of which there are fifty different flavours, are sold by weight, along with toppings, for 55 cents an ounce.
Menchie’s, also a self-serve establishment, is based in Encino, California. Michael Shneer, who holds the Canadian franchise rights for the brand, oversaw the opening of the first Menchie’s franchise in Canada about two months ago, in Richmond Hill. The Bloor Street store, the second Menchie’s to open in this country, is owned by the corporation. “We are in the process of franchising all across Canada,” says Shneer. ”We are getting inundated with requests to franchise all across the country.”
As for Bloor Street: “We love it because there’s a lot of street traffic,” says Shneer. But he adds that Menchie’s has no particular demographic, and that its combination of yogurt (one hundred flavours on rotation, they say) and atmosphere would be just as well suited to any high-traffic area. Shneer would consider locations in airports, he says, or malls.
In short, the Bloor-Annex strip occupies a kind of Venn-diagram intersection between students, families, and foot traffic. The name of that intersection is fro-yo city, and we’re all going to be living there until these places finish duking it out.
Photos by Eric Yip/Torontoist.