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Whether or not consumers are flocking to the better-for-you items they’re demanding from quick-serve restaurants is up for debate, but there’s really no argument about yogurt’s success. The dairy product’s growth is hard to ignore; according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, yogurt production doubled between 2002 and 2012 to meet demand.
Harry Balzer, vice president and chief food industry analyst at The NPD Group, said in a 2010 blog post that yogurt was the “food of the decade” in the 2000s. Nearly one in three Americans eat it at least once every two weeks, according to NPD data.
Key to yogurt’s growth, the NPD blog post said, is its versatility as a meal, meal replacement, snack, or dessert. Sales are growing in every daypart—and limited-service restaurants are taking notice.
“At quick-service restaurants, in both occurrences and items, yogurt mentions are up 40 percent,” says Allen Hendricks, vice president of channel programs for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, citing statistics from market research firm Technomic Inc. The biggest increase during the 12 months ending last September was in the meal add-on category, Hendricks says, although he notes that yogurt’s biggest use by far is as the main ingredient in frozen yogurt, smoothies, and parfaits.
Yogurt is increasingly top of mind among American consumers, says Yann Audebert, vice president of the Foodservice Division at The Dannon Company, part of the French-based Group Danone.
“We are part of the solution to the crisis in the American diet, and we see foodservice as a critical way to change habits,” he says, referencing the obesity problem in the U.S. “It’s important to make yogurt available away from home. Americans visit 13 foodservice locations for every trip to the supermarket.”
Yogurt sales in the last few years received an extra boost from Greek yogurt, which has more protein than the two other varieties, set-type and Swiss-style, and which has exploded in popularity. Each of the varieties has nearly an equal share of the market, according to global information company IBISWorld.
“If you look at the menu mentions of Greek yogurt, there’s a significant increase, even though there aren’t a lot of items yet,” Hendricks says.
Yogurt, which has roots in the eastern Mediterranean, is a slightly sour, semisolid fermented dairy product created by bacterial fermentation of milk. The beneficial bacteria act on the lactose to produce lactic acid, giving yogurt its texture and zest. These beneficial bacteria, called probiotics, help people digest food.
Traditional set-style yogurt is incubated, while Swiss-style yogurt is incubated and blended, often with a fruit purée, providing a creamy consistency. Greek yogurt is tarter and thicker, because whey is removed as it is being produced.
Yogurt is particularly popular in limited-service restaurants as a frozen dairy item. Frozen yogurt was developed in the 1970s as a lower-fat alternative to ice cream, and shops began popping up in the ’80s to sell the dessert, which was traditionally tart. Over the years, advances in technology and recipes helped create a creamier, sweeter frozen yogurt. But as premium ice cream and coffee shops grew in popularity in the early 2000s, frozen yogurt consumption declined.
In the latter half of this century’s first decade, frozen yogurt went back to its basics. Companies like Red Mango and Pinkberry began selling traditional, tart frozen yogurt. “Pinkberry was one of the first to not be afraid of the tart taste,” says Ron Graves, the Los Angeles company’s chief executive. “In 2005, there was literally nothing like it.”
One of the fastest-growing frozen yogurt entities is Richmond, Virginia–based sweetFrog. Stores feature six self-serve frozen yogurt stations, each with two flavors that also can be mixed.
“We will look at flavors to put together, like peanut butter and mixed berry for peanut butter and jelly, or cappuccino flavor with pumpkin pie that gives you almost a pumpkin spice latté flavor,” says James Denison, a spokesman for the 300-unit company. The increase in visits to self-service frozen yogurt shops is a combination of yogurt’s benefits (probiotics and low fat content) and giving guests the ability to create their own items. “The ability to customize is a very strong driver,” Denison says.
Jamba Juice uses frozen yogurt in three Classic Smoothies and five Creamy Treats beverages. It’s the same frozen yogurt that the chain, also known for fresh-squeezed juices, serves in its dessert bowl blends and Whirl’ns mixtures.
A couple of Jamba’s smoothies incorporate regular yogurt. Using yogurt in smoothies “does a nice job of balancing the pH and serves as a buffer for those who have problems with fruit juices,” says Brian Lee, vice president of innovation for the Emeryville, California–based company that has 850 units worldwide. “Yogurt has a healthy halo and a creaminess that is nice. It also has protein.” The brand’s Greek yogurt option provides even more protein.
Regular and frozen yogurts are key ingredients in smoothies at other juice bars and some quick-service restaurants, including McDonald’s and Burger King.
Many of the smoothies and blends at Juice It Up! are made with frozen yogurt, including Seabreeze Squeeze, which also has cranberry and apple juices, bananas, raspberries, strawberries, and orange sherbet. Some of that chain’s smoothies use vegetable juice, such as Carrot Patch, with fresh-squeezed carrot juice and bananas, along with the non-fat yogurt.
In a bid to differentiate itself and boost smoothie sales, Pinkberry now uses Greek yogurt in its smoothies. These also feature agave nectar, fresh fruit, and nonfat milk.
One big growth area for yogurt in limited-service restaurants is in parfaits, a concept that McDonald’s took mainstream when Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfaits were introduced in 1999. Parfaits are an easy way to get more low-fat dairy and fruit into diets, and a “wholesome choice that is available all day,” spokeswoman Lisa McComb writes in an email.
Parfaits were viewed initially as breakfast items. Breakfast is the main meal for yogurt, The Dannon Company’s Audebert says, so the dairy product provides one way for operators to enter that daypart. “The traditional way is a parfait,” he says.
Breakfast is one reason Salata, a build-your-own salad concept, is adding yogurt bars and parfaits. Just as with its salad, the yogurt and toppings are assembled by associates behind the counter as customers move along an assembly line. “The idea came to me a few years ago as part of our growth plans,” says Berge Simonian, founder of the 30-unit chain based in Houston. The company’s first bid for an airport location was rejected “because we didn’t have a breakfast option.”