First came the gourmet coffee. Then there were designer cupcakes.
Now comes self-serve frozen yogurt.
The latest food trend to sweep across the Northern San Joaquin Valley is a sweet treat with do-it-yourself appeal.
While frozen yogurt long has been a part of the area's dessert menu thanks to shops such as TCBY and The Yogurt Mill, this new wave of frozen yogurt (or froyo, as fans say) is hands off by its owners and hands on with its customers.
At least four self-serve frozen yogurt shops have cropped up in Modesto since March. Leading the way two summers ago was L.A. Cultures Healthy Frozen Yogurt at Coffee Road and Floyd Avenue in Modesto. Husband and wife owners Mark and Dee Wallace said a friend in Davis turned him on to the idea.
"He said (self-serve frozen yogurt) is kind of like Starbucks was 15 years ago," Mark Wallace said. "Frozen yogurt was first hot in the 1980s. But since then it has changed drastically."
The rise of full-service, high-quality frozen yogurt brands such as Red Mango and Pinkberry made way for
self-serve franchises such as the Wallaces' shop.
The concept is simple: Customers walk in, pick a cup size and dispense their own soft-serve yogurt from a variety of flavors. They can choose from several dozen toppings from fresh strawberries to hot fudge.
Customers' creations are weighed and they are charged a flat rate, usually about 40 cents per ounce. The appeal for customers is just as simple: They can customize their treats to their taste.
"I like getting how much I want and how many toppings I want," said 10-year-old Stephane Angel, who came to L.A. Cultures with 8-year-old brother Joshua and mom Andrea Angel on Friday afternoon. "I also like pulling the lever."
Frozen yogurt is also healthier than its ice cream cousin, and can offer health benefits such as live and active cultures that support healthy digestion.
Toppings range from the good-for-you — such as granola, nuts and fresh fruit — to the indulgent — Reese's cups, gummy bears and cheesecake chunks.
"With the fresh fruit, it is so much healthier," said Lucy Haro, trying her first frozen yogurt at Oodles at Tully Road and Standiford Avenue in Modesto. "I think I like it better than ice cream. We were already saying next time we'll get this and that on it."
Oodles was opened in May by husband and wife owners Ron and Lynn Dickerson. The couple became fans of the self-serve concept while working in Sacramento.
Then the appeal of the low overhead and family-friendly business model made them decide to start their own shop.
"It's a fun atmosphere," Ron Dickerson said. "When people come here, it's a treat, and most of the time they're in a really good mood. So there's a lot of energy."
Besides Oodles, at least three other self-serve shops have popped up this year in Modesto: YogoFina in McHenry Village, YogoMania in the North Point Landing center on North McHenry Avenue and Tuttimelon in Vintage Faire Mall. Shops also have cropped up in Manteca, Turlock, Tracy and Merced.
Tuttimelon is the newest addition, having opened July 31. The store is part of an international chain based in San Francisco. Besides self-serve frozen yogurt, Tuttimelon has full-service gelato.
Co-owner Marvin Fontanilla of Fremont said he and his two business partners chose to open their shop in Modesto because of the saturation of frozen yogurt places in the Bay Area.
"There is almost one on every corner, sometimes two," Fontanilla said. "The frozen yogurt business is growing rapidly. But about 75 percent of the people who come in our door here have never experienced the frozen yogurt concept. They're virgins."
With more shops opening in the area, Fontanilla said, it is important for each brand to distinguish itself. He said Tuttimelon is known for its more tart, less sugary product.
Others, such as Merced's Forté Frozen Yogurt, have taken a green community approach. Opened in May 2009, the locally owned downtown shop has become a popular gathering place and offers near nightly entertainment from live music to karaoke to poetry readings.
Owner Alexander Lu-Pon came out of the corporate world, doing IT consulting and management, to start the shop. His sister, who attends the University of California at Merced, told him the area would be a good place to set up shop.
Forté won the county's 2009 Green Business award. Its cups and spoons are compostable and many of its toppings come from local farms, including nuts, berries and fruits.
As for all the other shops around the valley, Lu-Pon said he isn't worried.
"We were first to market here, which is pretty key and critical for success in any business," he said. "Imitation is the highest form of flattery."
Back at L.A. Cultures, fan and frequent visitor Jennifer Spears has made converts of her friends. She said she isn't sure if all the new self-serve places will survive, but she is glad Modesto has quality self-serve frozen yogurt.
With her Thursday afternoon was 5-year-old Abigail Sims. With the evidence of a chocolate and vanilla treat on her face, she gave the yogurt her the highest praise.
"It's better than McDonald's," she said.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2284.