Self-Serve Frozen Yogurt: Background information when reading My Year Abroad

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My Year Abroad

by Chang-rae Lee

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee X
My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2021, 496 pages

    Feb 2022, 496 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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About this Book

Self-Serve Frozen Yogurt

This article relates to My Year Abroad

Print Review

White and orange swirled mochi frozen yogurt with rainbow sprinkles in 16 Handles cupIn My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee, Pong Lou enlists Tiller Bardmon to help with the formulation and branding of a product called jamu, a kind of restorative drink. However, Pong first tests Tiller's nose for business by having him taste and evaluate flavors for his self-serve frozen yogurt (froyo) chain, WTF Yo!. According to Tiller, the shop is "one of those places where you self-serve your preferred flavor of frozen yogurt ... and then hit the toppings bar and load up your cup with sweet and savory shit like crushed malt balls and mango chunks and wheat germ and then have it weighed to calculate the always shocking price." While frozen yogurt has been around as a commercial product in the United States since the 1970s, the kind of self-serve shop Tiller describes is a relatively recent trend.

Frozen yogurt shops found their footing in the U.S. when the now-famous chain TCBY (The Country's Best Yogurt) opened its first store in 1981 and began to popularize yogurt in the style of soft-serve ice cream with the promise of less fat and fewer calories. Frozen yogurt production reached a peak in 1995 but had experienced a major decline by the mid-2000s. At this point, it seemed the treat might be on its way out, but a different type of yogurt shop was already poised to hit the market. Dan Kim, a California resident, had a successful chain called Red Mango in his native Korea, which sold tart-flavored yogurt inspired by his love for Italian gelato. Kim had built the product around his knowledge of the South Korean demand for European sweets and frozen desserts as well as the country's enjoyment of commercial probiotics like the yogurt drink Yakult. In 2005, at the same time Red Mango was becoming a hit in Seoul, two other Californians from South Korea, Shelly Hwang and Young Lee, opened the first Pinkberry store in West Hollywood, also providing a limited number of tart yogurt flavors. Red Mango soon expanded to the U.S. and, as Priya Krishna puts it in an article for Taste, " ... so began the great Asian frozen-yogurt wars of the early aughts."

As the new wave of expanding frozen yogurt businesses began looking for ways to innovate and distinguish themselves, the self-serve shop, in which customers load up cups with their own selections of frozen yogurt and toppings, was born. An early example was the brainchild of Solomon Choi, another Korean American entrepreneur who watched Pinkberry's ascent to success and subsequently opened his own New York City-based frozen yogurt shop 16 Handles in 2008, introducing the self-serve format to the area.

16 Handles is one of many chains that has sought to capitalize on the tart-yogurt trend while also taking a broader, more consumer-driven approach, generally favoring sugary flavors over tart ones and giving people the option of building their own dessert creations. This approach has proven to be the more successful one overall, as the original tart yogurt phenomenon has been outpaced by the wider self-serve trend, which has brought frozen yogurt back to the role of catering to the public's sweet tooth. However, self-serve shops like 16 Handles still sometimes offer at least one or two tart options, as is the case with Pong's shop in My Year Abroad. Tiller mentions that his own favorite flavor is "Super Euro Tart, which tickles a couple ways."

Smaller chains and local shops have taken advantage of the rise in self-serve yogurt, making it seem realistic that Pong, a driven entrepreneur, would buy into the opportunity. Lee's choice to make a froyo shop one of Pong's business ventures also seems appropriate considering that My Year Abroad explores liminal spaces between East Asian and American culture and that the origins of self-serve frozen yogurt have emerged from some of those spaces. As the self-serve shop represents a shift away from simpler specialty offerings and towards a more extravagant approach, its presence in the novel also aligns with Tiller's eventual experience of the dangers of unfettered capitalist ventures.

Rainbow Mochi frozen yogurt, courtesy of Yelp

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Elisabeth Cook

This "beyond the book article" relates to My Year Abroad. It originally ran in February 2021 and has been updated for the February 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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