Ten years ago, the world looked a little different. Barack Obama was president, One Direction was still together (RIP), Carly Rae Jepsen’s hit single “Call Me Maybe” was blasting from our iPod touches, Fifty Shades Of Grey was making everyone horny, our Instagram feeds were still in chronological order, Nick Jonas took off his purity ring — and frozen yogurt shops had swarmed almost every town, city, and suburb in the United States.
I was 15 at the start of 2012, which meant that I couldn’t yet drive in my home state of New Jersey. But my parents could, and each weekend they’d drop me off at a local strip mall or bustling downtown neighborhood with a fresh $20 bill in my Urban Outfitters satchel and at least three frozen yogurt shops within walking distance. Whether it was just the start of my reckless teenage years or the fact that I could serve myself as many Reese’s peanut butter cups as I wanted, froyo was one of my first (and extremely chocolatey) tastes of freedom. The world was my oyster — or rather, the world was my buffet line of self-serve froyo toppings.
Froyo has cemented itself into my mental scrapbook of high school memories, along with the simple chaos of 2012 Instagram, hair feathers, prom dress Facebook groups, and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. And I’m certainly not alone in my nostalgia and fondness associated with the frozen dessert. After posting a prompt to my Instagram story asking for my followers’ best frozen yogurt anecdotes and memories, I received reply after reply that expressed longing for the days when there was a froyo store on every block. One person claimed to have eaten frozen yogurt around three times a week in 2012, while another described stealing her mother’s car to try Yogurtland for the first time because, in her words, “It was the moment.” Another responder simply asked the question we’ve all had on our minds: “I don’t know why they stopped being a thing.”
Presumably, they joined the rest of the oversaturated food fads, including cronuts, cupcakes, over-the-top milkshakes, and rainbow bagels, in sweet, sweet purgatory. As competing foods entered the market, and new trends began to gain popularity, the tart, refreshing dessert was left behind.
But 2012 wasn’t froyo’s first rodeo — and it may not be its last. There was a craze back in the ‘80s and again in the early 2000s when the craving for a “healthier” dessert reached the masses. There was even a moment when a Pinkberry cup was the “it” celeb accessory of the moment. And you know what they say about trends: They always come back.
Just blocks away from my New York City apartment lies a relic of the past — a 16 Handles, still fully operating in all its 2012 glory. First opened in 2008, the storefront had nine direct competitors within a three-block radius that included Pinkberry, Red Mango, Tasti D Lite, and Ben & Jerry’s, according to Solomon Choi, founder and CEO of the brand. “2012 was a boom year for us and we had [around] 20 stores open by the end of that year,” Choi tells Refinery29. “I think the boom occurred at a time consumers were focused on better-for-you, yet tasty, ice cream alternatives. The novelty of self-serve and personalization was also a growing trend in all things, including frozen dessert.”
At the height of froyo mania, 16 Handles had 40 storefronts open and operating — now, that number has dropped to 30. While those stats blow any hometown froyo chain out of the water, there have been plenty of success stories from smaller brands across the country that have survived the Great Froyo Boom of 2012.
Take Juanita Velasco, who owned and operated Rockies Frozen Yogurt in Whittier, CA from 2005 until selling the shop in 2021. When she purchased the business, she knew that the froyo frenzy was coming. Soon enough, Rockies was sandwiched between two well-known froyo chains, each around a mile away. Even while the self-serve aspect was all the rage, Rockies served froyo the ol’ fashion way, with employees building cups for customer. “I knew I couldn’t compete with them,” Velasco tells Refinery29. “I tried to get creative, I was bringing in product other than yogurt, and that helped me survive.”
Velasco didn’t just survive. Each year since the 2008 recession, Rockies Frozen Yogurt saw an increase in sales. And while, as she said, she’d begun to sell more than just froyo, including boba and snow cones, her eponymous offering is still the lifeblood of her business. “Frozen yogurt, it comes in waves,” she says. “I remember when I was in high school in the early ‘80s froyo was a big thing, and then when it died down it was all these ice cream spots… Every 10 years it pops up and it's a trend again, and then it dies down.”
If Velasco is right, froyo is due for another resurgence. And yet in 2020, the frozen yogurt production in the U.S. was the lowest it’s been since 2006, perhaps at least partially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But things are looking up. The International Frozen Yogurt Association (yes, it really exists) reported that seven new froyo stores opened in the U.S. in January 2022. Sadly, four older stores closed during that time. Even so, plenty of froyo fans are feeling hopeful.
“This time around, I don't think it's a trend anymore,” Velasco says. “Yogurt’s here to stay now. Those of us that were able to survive the boom and the closures and the recession… we caught onto something, and that’s what helped us to continue.”
While we may not see froyo shops take over our towns like it’s 2012 ever again, it’s nice to know that you’ll always have a place to go when you’re craving a large original tart with crushed Oreos and gummy worms.