The Healthy Yogurt Invasion

The healthy yogurt fad is invading Austin with Piccomolo and Yogoberry, and we couldn't be more pleased

Piccomolo (Photo by John Anderson)

To hear Joe Shin tell it, even during their UT college days, his buddy Kevin Lee was an ice cream fanatic. "No matter what we did as a group – sports, listening to music, whatever – he always wanted to go out for ice cream afterwards," Shin recalls. So when Kevin Lee embarked on a trip around the world to research ice cream after graduation from UT in 2001, his friends were not surprised. Lee's travels eventually took him to Italy, where he fell in love with gelato, Italy's venerable contribution to the world of frozen desserts. Lee returned to the states with the beginnings of a business plan. He recruited the five friends from college who used to join him for ice cream, and they formed a Dallas-based company to franchise a chain of gelato shops that also sell natural frozen yogurt.

Founder and CEO Kevin Lee (UT class of 2001, sports man­age­ment) chose to call the company Piccomolo (; Young Lee (UT '01, man­age­ment) is marketing director; Paul Cho (UT '02, kinesiology) is development director; Jaewon Yoon (UT '99, graphic design) and Jae Yoon (UT '01, interior design) designed all the store interiors, promotional materials, and menus; and Joe Shin (UT '02, Asian studies) is area developer. The team opened the first Piccomolo outlet in the Metroplex area in 2002, and now the company has 28 stores in six states, mostly in Texas and California. The young company is riding the wave of America's love affair with Italian foods and also tapping into the incredible West Coast popularity of natural-frozen-yogurt shops created by vendors from Korea such as Red Mango and Pinkberry. Piccomolo stores offer several flavors of naturally flavored, preservative-free gelato and sorbetto made fresh daily, plus customized gelato cakes, and they also whip up two flavors of natural frozen yogurt (vanilla and strawberry, sometimes green tea) with a selection of toppings that includes chopped fresh fruit, nuts, Fruity Pebbles cereal, Oreo crumbs, and chocolate chips.

Austin's first Piccomolo outlet (13429 Hwy. 183 N. #110, 335-6656) opened in May 2007 in the far Northwest Anderson Arbor Shopping Center. Joe Shin runs the local store and is always on the lookout for new potential locations here in his hometown. When we first spoke last fall, the Pinkberry natural-frozen-yogurt phenomenon on the West Coast was all over the national news. Shin was hoping some of that national exposure might rub off on his company. He invited me to come out and sample some natural frozen yogurt, pointing out that his product is made with yogurt that still contains live active cultures. (More on the significance of this later.) Along with samples of his excellent gelato, sorbetto, and frozen yogurt, Shin directed us to the counter display of company brochures detailing the nutritional information on all the gelato, sorbetto, and yogurt flavors. The info is also on their website for those folks looking for healthier frozen treats. I found Piccomolo's frozen yogurt light and refreshing, with a hint of tartness at the finish. A 4-ounce serving will only cost you 110 nonfat calories, though a choice of toppings naturally bumps up the calorie count. "I'd love to tell you that people usually go for the fruit toppings, but they really go more for the Pebbles and the chocolate chips," Shin says with a bashful grin.

The most intriguing aspect of my conversation with Shin was his eagerness to find the best quality real yogurt for his frozen dessert product. Soon after our first meeting, he made contact with a respected Austin company, White Mountain Foods, and arranged to buy their highly regarded Bulgarian Yogurt in bulk as the base for the frozen yogurt at the Austin store. White Mountain's yogurt contains only milk and beneficial bacteria cultures – no thickeners, preservatives, or sweeteners. The local outlet is the only member of the Piccomolo chain currently using White Mountain yogurt as a base, because the company doesn't have bulk distribution in other cities. As it is now, White Mountain CEO Jeff Murray drops the Piccomolo bulk order off on his way home to Cedar Park every week. Murray describes himself as someone without much of a sweet tooth, but he's really pleased to see Piccomolo using his yogurt in their store, just as he'll proudly say that Kerbey Lane Cafe, Magnolia Cafe, Cafe Mundi, Wildwood Art Cafe, Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse, Mother's Cafe & Garden, and Sisters & Brothers dressings use the yogurt as a component of some of their menu items.

I'll admit the White Mountain base does give the Piccomolo natural frozen yogurt a more assertive tartness, but it is really wonderful with a palate-cleansing aspect to it. "We always encourage new customers to try it, and the response is about 50/50. Half the people just don't care for it at all, but the ones who do like it really get addicted to it," Shin reports. Murray has a pretty clear idea about why that is. "In the Sixties and Seventies, the three major health foods were yogurt, honey, and whole-wheat bread. There was a small segment of the American population that ate yogurt because they knew it was good for them and another group with ethnic food backgrounds that predisposed them towards sour, tangy flavors," Murray explains. As the health-food segment of the market grew steadily over the last 40 years, American food manufacturers found ways to expand their market share by making "health foods" more appealing to the mainstream American palate while still selling under a "healthy" banner. "In an effort to make yogurt more palatable, manufacturers manipulated the cultures and added sugar to get rid of any strong tart flavor. Most mass-marketed commercial yogurt brands ended up with a mild flavor and very little active culture at all. Now that's how many American consumers think yogurt is supposed to taste," says Murray.

He adds that one of White Mountain's most effective promotional slogans has always been, "Just give us five days," working on the assumption that many people would feel the health benefits of eating their product and develop a taste for the tangy flavor in that amount of time. The same adage could work for Joe Shin at Piccomolo. Give his delectable natural frozen yogurt five days, and see if you don't become a convert.

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Piccomolo frozen yogurt, Joe Shin, White Mountain Yogurt, Yogoberry

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