FOCUS: New Twists on Soft Serve

It’s hard to believe, but by the time you read this, it’ll be May. And if you’re in foodservice that means a couple of things: First, the National Restaurant Association Show is coming May 18-21 to Chicago’s McCormick Place. Second, warmer weather is coming, even up north—and that means soft-serve frozen-yogurt season!

As many of you have noticed, we’re in the middle of a yogurt revolution of sorts, actually a second one. The first, you might recall, sparked in the late 1970s with the launch of I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt and other chains. In ’81, the company that is now TCBY opened its first store. The rest, as they say, is history. That first rush of expansion in the segment continued briskly for more than a decade before losing oomph during the ’90s. 

The Second Revolution

The second yogurt revolution, with a decidedly different approach, started in the early 2000s. Whereas the first wave focused mainly on counter service, the past decade has been more about self-service: Customers dispense their own yogurt, step to a toppings bar, add the goodies they want and pay by weight. 

Customers clearly like the convenience, control and customization. The number of self-service frozen-yogurt chains has multiplied like bacteria, if you’ll pardon the reference, and today names like Forever Yogurt, Menchies, Red Mango and Yogurtland are among dozens of multiunit, self-service yogurt concepts on a roll. Over the past couple of years, equipment makers tell us, expansion has slowed quite a bit in the northern, chillier climates that have shorter seasons for soft serve, but expansion still continues in many places where warmer weather prevails. Nationally, expansion rates in some recent years have topped 50%.

Partly because this new wave features self-service, the long-term growth potential may be even greater than it was for counter service. Several equipment makers we spoke with said dedicated concepts are just part of the story: Soft-serve yogurt setups in many forms could go into a lot of existing foodservice locations as co-brands or simply as menu additions.

Diving In

So, what if you’re part of this yogurt nation or thinking about jumping in? What do you do about replacing existing equipment, or even starting from scratch?

There’s a lot to consider, starting with the basics of how soft-serve machines work and how to spec them. If you want to double-check your setup, read our February 2008 story, ”Specifying For Soft-Serve,” at The information there is still the resource for Soft Serve 101. 

With that covered, equipment makers say, you have yogurt-specific and self-serve considerations as well. First, what yogurt choices will you make? The food side of the soft-serve yogurt business could fill a library, but a few basics are in order here because they’ll impact equipment/ops decisions. Will you go with liquid or powdered source product, for example? What flavors will fly in your market? Most experts we talked with note that flavors tend to break into two main categories: more tart and less tart. More tart is big in Europe and Asia, and therefore more popular in urban, coastal markets here. As you migrate toward the nation’s midsection, preferences tend to shift to less tart/more sweet. Those flavor preferences, in turn, may or may not have implications for slight tweaks of serving temperatures and textures. Sugar content is a consideration, too. “Sugar is an antifreeze,” as one manufacturer puts it. “More sugar requires lower temperatures” for any given texture. In any case, you can fine-tune such considerations with the suppliers. If/when you change formulations, change machine settings if so indicated.

Equipment Evolution

On the equipment side, the basics of soft-serve have stayed pretty constant, and our 2008 story holds up well. But the yogurt market and the equipment issues have changed enough over the past few years that there’s still much to think about. We’re in the era of “less is more,” for one thing. We have tighter budgets and no room for excess. And these days we’re talking about self-service, which also has some implications. 

What types of machines, what sizes and how many do you need? Ten or 20 years ago, the stampede tended to over-equip on the notion that more flavors would be important and customer rushes might overwhelm counter staff. So locations that should have had three or four of something typically had twice as many. This is no longer the case, so give it some thought.

For types of machine, you have two choices: pressure-fed and gravity-fed. Pressure-fed gives you more precise control, a creamier product, higher production and a higher overrun. (Overrun refers to the amount of air whipped into the mix, which creates a certain texture and increases product yield. A 45% overrun, for example, will “fluff up” a volume of mix by 45%.) Theoretically, you can get more product and profit out of a pressure model. But one of the tradeoffs is additional up-front cost for a pressure unit. How long would the payback take? While it’s true that very busy sites will look into pressure-fed equipment, many manufacturers say it’s usually overkill for yogurt locations. Gravity-fed machines produce excellent yogurt products and meet most volume needs. Plus, as one maker notes, “in self-serve production capacity, the customer is the bottleneck. You don’t need a big machine” or a pressure-fed one because the customers will only serve themselves so fast. Some makers estimate approximately 95% of all self-serve yogurt machines are gravity-fed. 

As for machine sizes, small-medium-large cylinders typically run roughly in the range of 2- or 2.5-, 3.5- and 5-qt. cylinders. The 3.4- to 3.7-qt. sizes are the workhorses, big enough for most locations, yet small enough to minimize wasted product. How many servings per hour? These midsize cylinders typically will produce about 150 to 200 4- or 5-oz. servings per hour. A twin-cylinder machine with two flavors and twist function could be double that.

Components To Consider

Once you have basic throughput figured out, what’s next? One thing is hopper size. Bigger hoppers need less frequent filling. On the other hand, they also create the potential for more waste. Your suppliers can help you sort out what you need.

Another element to consider is cooling. Not so long ago, air-cooled machines dumped their air inside the store space. But in these days of expensive energy, you really don’t want to be paying for that excess HVAC load.

If available, liquid cooling is the way to go for shops with four or more machines. Generally, you’d go with a closed-glycol recirculating system to eliminate ongoing water costs, says one manufacturer. Common brand names for these units are Coldshot, Airdyne, Chillking, just to get you started if you need to investigate.

Remote condensers can be rare for multi-unit yogurt shops; most go with the circulation systems instead as it generally is more affordable than remoting eight separate condensing units.

Think about the machine’s electrical load, too. How many amps will you be drawing, and how many plugs will be involved? Some models use one plug per cylinder; others use just a single plug. And get efficiency data. Some makers have jumped on this topic already; others, not yet. 

A word about microprocessors: One of the great, if invisible, advances in recent years has been in microprocessors. Thanks to microprocessors, changing settings is much easier than in the past, which means changing settings for different products is no longer the big production it was in the past.

Tough Customers

How the equipment will be used always impacts specs, and when self-serve is involved, you have some things to think about. Multiple makers mentioned safety and convenience, among other things. Customers are not experienced users, so you’ll want sturdy pull handles that are easy to handle and shut off promptly. Likewise, give thought to the cleanability of drip trays. It’s likely you’ll have lots of spills. Generally make sure everything is simple and relatively damage-proof. Kids are only kids, after all. And so are some adults. 

Routine Maintenance

Which brings us, as always, to maintenance. As several manufacturers told us, with all of the chemistry going on in yogurt, sanitation is a big deal. Local regulations actually will dictate minimum requirements. But from a health/safety perspective, daily is recommended, and as one maker comments, “You get uncomfortable if it’s three days without cleaning.” Figuring it takes about a half hour each night for an experienced operator to clean a machine—longer for a new employee—a ton of time goes to maintenance. A lot of machines get pushed back to staggered schedules, less than daily. But it’s an expensive risk.

The flip side is the automatic heat-sanitizing systems that some makers offer, but they’re a topic of some debate where yogurt is concerned. The heat process kills the live cultures in yogurt, some note, and damages the product. Others say as a practical matter that isn’t such a major concern. Either way, you should be aware and decide for yourself. 

In closing, keep in mind there’s periodic replacement of wear parts such as o-rings as well as the scraper blades in the cylinders. Soft-serve machines have many moving parts, and a lot of parts expand and contract with temperature variances. Motors, compressors—things wear. All of which means simplicity of machine design and accessibility make a huge difference in maintenance and maintenance costs, not to mention operation and food safety.

So talk with your suppliers. Look at how the machines are made. And choose your tools. You’ve got a lot of yogurt to sell.


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