By EMMA COURTLAND
Special to Squid Ink
Late last month, the pink and green pastel Pinkberry sign that once beckoned UCLA coeds to the brick arch at 10911 Lindbrook in the Westwood Village was replaced with a sign for the location's new tenant, Yogurtland. The Lindbrook store is the third Pinkberry location on the Westside to close in the last few months, and the fifth yogurt shop in the Village to close in the last year.
The product of an oversaturated market, dwindling hype and the larger economic recession, this mass closing of frozen yogurt shops in Southern California (or, "The Great Froyo Melt," as it has been dubbed by Eater LA) has been lurking on the horizon since the first Pinkberry spawned countless imitators shortly after opening in 2005.
But Westwood Village has only experienced a partial meltdown. The doors to frozen dessert shops never really close, they revolve: Red Mango occupies the former Penguin's location, the late Berry Nutty was Mr. Snowberry, and Yogurt Express was Haagen Dazs. They come and go, and because they're soon replaced by a comparable (if not almost indistinguishable) yogurt purveyor, nobody bats an eye. Still, it seemed as if Pinkberry, the originator of the Southern California's tart yogurt craze, would be the exception.
So if name recognition and corporate backing no longer have staying power, what, if anything, does?
Like all of the shop swaps in the village, this latest Pinkberry-into-Yogurtland morphing reflects the current trend in frozen dessert: self-serve yogurt. When it opens, Yogurtland, which boasts 16 rotating flavors, and 33 toppings, at 30 cents per ounce, will be the second self-serve shop in the village.
Yogurt Express, which sits signless in the former Haagen Dazs spot, next to Urban Outfitters, is currently the only self-serve yogurt shop, and the last independent yogurt shop left in the village. It has six flavors at a time, and a modest toppings station. Although technically, self-serve yogurt is the shop's gimmick, it's not what differentiates it from the chains.
When describing his business, Yogurt Express's owner Roel Kusuma (he pronounces his first name "Royal") searches for the right words, but keeps coming back to the word "feel." When you walk into the tiny brick shop, you understand why. Kusuma looks up from his place behind the counter and greets you like an old friend.
"It's about building a community," he says. And he means it. Of every ten people who walk in, he usually knows the names of at least two. And even though he works from the time the shop opens until the time it closes, his face always glows with energetic welcoming.
And why not? Yogurt Express is a family business. Kusuma runs the shop with his sister and aunt, and throughout the day, other family members stop by with their kids. "Hey girl!" he says to his two-year-old niece. It's the same greeting he gave me when I walked in. By keeping things small, within the family, Kusuma can keep the cost as low as possible and cultivate that "feeling" that keeps people coming back.
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"It's not just about the money," he says earnestly. "I mean, we need money. But that's not what it's about." What would sound clichéd coming from anyone else, is entirely sincere coming from Kusuma. You really can feel it. Yogurt Express is the place you want to go because it feels good being there. There's a feeling of familiarity, of participation and community.
And perhaps that's what's missing from the Pinkberrys, the Red Mangos, and the Yogurtlands that keeps them opening and closing stores. Everything's so big that the product, the people serving it, and the people buying it are expendable. You don't miss them when they're gone and they don't miss you.
Yet, because Yogurtland charges 30 cents an ounce, 9 cents less than Kusuma's Yogurt Express, and has more flavors and toppings, the tiny family business is threatened. As always, the Kusumas remain optimistic.
After all, yogurt into which too much air has been churned melts faster than the same yogurt with more substance.