Frozen yogurt fever has struck South Tampa.
Diagnosis: Serious addiction.
California and New York succumbed years ago, but we're hooked now.
In the past three years, at least three yogurt shops have opened within a few miles of each other.
Now, here come Yogurtology, You Say When and Soobak Yogurt Bar, riding the next wave of self-serve, low-calorie "froyo" sold by the ounce.
Cost: $3 and swirling.
Calories: half of the equivalent portion of ice cream, not including toppings.
Take that, cupcake queens!
Many of the frozen concoctions are free of fat, sugar or gluten and contain bacteria that helps maintain the digestive system. The yogurt cultures add tartness.
Open just three weeks, Yogurtology owners, siblings Grant Levy, 22 and Jaclyn Levy, 26, already recognize faces popping in for a daily fix.
"This is my fourth time this week,'' said cross country track coach Jenn Eggleston, 21, seated outside at a sleek white plastic cafe table. "I'm telling all my girls to come. The topping bar is amazing."
Sasha Dominguez, 17, has tried every flavor. "I came twice the day they opened and three times a week since."
The Levys, both Plant High grads, bought the nation's first Yogurtology franchise. The landlord at 1202 S Church Ave. is their father, retail center developer Cliff Levy, who owns the development rights for Yogurtology in Florida.
The self-serve concept can be fun.
"Begin with 'bottomings,' " says Jaclyn, pointing to brownies, chocolate chip cookies and graham cracker crumbs and other "toppings for the bottom."
Then help yourself to 12 flavors that change from day to day. "But we'll always have the most popular — oatmeal cookie, red velvet and Oreos n'cream — and a non-dairy sorbet,'' she said.
More decisions. There are 60 toppings to choose from, including baklava, rice cakes or chocolate-covered sunflower seeds.
Finally, the bowl is weighed and the sale is made, 49 cents an ounce.
Customers go through a similar process at You Say When, which has nine franchises statewide.
There are three kinds of customers, founder Brad Bridges says.
"Enthusiasts are 30 percent of the market and go for anything strange and unique, like red velvet or snickerdoodle." The traditionalist makes up 52 percent, more than half the market, "but eat only chocolate, vanilla and strawberry."
The other 18 percent, he continued, "the Living Well segment who read labels and are interested in health and fitness."
Bridges, 36, and Nick Barrese, 28, opened You Say When outside of Macy's in WestShore Plaza in July 2009.
They were expected to open another location this week at 533 S Howard Ave. in Whaley's Plaza.
The partners gutted the former Ship n' Pak space, raised the ceiling and installed hardwood floors.
"We wanted to keep the feel of the young, fun franchise theme, with a contemporary Hyde Park feel," said Barrese, who is planning specials like classic movie nights and karaoke.
Bridges, who has worked for ConAgra and led Nestle's ice cream division (maker of Dreyer's and Edy's), said he developed the recipes with food scientists. Eight flavors are featured every day. A typical serving, Bridges says, is under 100 calories.
Customers twirl their choices, pick their toppings and weigh in at 55 cents per ounce.
Another shop, Vivo Yogurt Bar, opened about two weeks ago. The bar, at 505 N Tampa St., is designed to be an "ultra-cool" hangout, said operating owner Derek Cuculich.
The froyo fad doesn't appear to be melting anytime soon. Tampa proprietors see plenty of market share to share.
Bring it on shop owners say — unlike well-known Los Angeles competitors Red Mango and Pinkberry who have gone to court to settle various issues.
"Competition is good, it keeps us on our game,'' said Jaclyn Levy, mentioning that Barrese recently stopped by to introduce himself.
Their shops are about 2 miles apart. Still, says Barrese: "Our customers are localized, and very loyal."
Berryism and CaliYogurt — which opened in the past three years — as well as Vivo all set themselves apart by offering full service.
"I see pluses and minuses," said Berryism owner Dave Burton. "Buffet style can get messy and I don't like people touching the spoons."
Whether the demand for more frozen yogurt emerges or not, says Burton, "competition will increase the awareness."
CaliYogurt opened its first shop on Morrison Avenue in April 2007. Now there are nine stores, founder Phillip Park said.
After two years as a CaliYogurt franchise, Maryanne Lee converted her Davis Islands business into Soobak Yogurt Bar. (Soobak means watermelon in Korean). Renovation is under way for a do-it-yourself shop.
SunniBunni closed its S Howard Avenue store in June 2009, chased away by lack of parking, not poor sales, says founder Alexandra Van Wie. She has since opened two stores in Sarasota and one in Bradenton.
"We will definitely be back in Tampa in 2011," she said. "There's room for everybody."
Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.