by Beverley Ann D’Cruz

Justin Bieber loves it. As do Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Jamie Foxx. Now Torontonians can make like a celebrity and get their frozen yogurt fix at the new Menchie’s location at 511 Bloor Street West. Judging from the foot fall during a Saturday afternoon, they don’t seem to be having much trouble getting city dwellers addicted to their treats. From children to adults, everyone seems to be walking out with a satisfied smile on their face.

But what makes Menchie’s so different from other frozen yogurt chains? It would have to be the self-serve concept. Patrons are let loose like kids in a candy store to first choose their flavours – from Green Apple Tart to Banana Bread – at the yogurt bar and then garnish their creation with a choice of toppings that include everything from sprinkles, peanuts and mochi to peanut butter cups. Fresh cut fruit like kiwi and cinnamon apple and sauces complete the entire range of accoutrements. The order is then weighed so payment is made only for the amount one wants.

“You are completely in charge of the experience,” says Michael Shneer who along with his brother David are the Canadian Master Franchisors of Menchie’s. “We have 100 flavours which we rotate all the time and you decide what you like. Every time you come in there is something new. Even with the toppings we are always rotating them so you’ll find something new. So every time is a unique experience.”

Menchie’s seems to have all the health bases covered: 99% of the frozen yogurt range is fat-free and some are low-fat. All products are  Kosher and gluten-free so they are safe for those suffering from celiac disease. In addition, diabetics can enjoy the sugar-free versions, while those who are lactose intolerant can opt for the sorbets. “We have something for everyone,” adds Shneer. So far, popular flavours include Cake Batter, Creamsicle and Original Tart. For the holiday season, plans are in place to introduce Gingerbread, Candy Cane and even Eggnog to the list of rotation.

Loading up at the 'Yogurt Bar'

While similar flavours maybe available at the US stores, all the frozen yogurt produced for Menchie’s on the east coast is made using Canadian milk and has been developed in close collaboration with an Ontario-based dairy. The recipes are also proprietary to Menchie’s Canada and can only be used by sister stores in the country. However, finding the right dairy to develop and produce the frozen yogurt was no piece of cake according to Shneer.

“I spent one year trying to find a Canadian dairy that could produce the frozen yogurt that was up to our standards,” he says. “There are a lot of Canadian dairies that make a similar product but it was not easy, as there are very few that can do it according to our standards. So it was a very long drawn out process of tasting and testing and re-testing and finally we settled on the dairy.”

Toppings (a.k.a. "Snackage") are sold by weight.

Aside from keeping the milk and producer local, Shneer says that the clientele also largely dictates what new flavours of frozen yogurt are created and what goes on the list of toppings. Considering the large Asian community in the vicinity, they are in the process of developing flavours like Green Tea and Mango flavours. Shneer reiterates the necessity to reflect their clientele’s taste by narrating an incident about a US-based Menchie’s that opened in a largely Spanish neighbourhood. After a few weeks clients asked why there were no chillies being offered as a topping.

“We didn’t know that chillies and yogurt go together,” says Shneer. “So we brought in chillies for them and they are the number one topping in the store. So in that sense we want to localize. We have mochi in our line up here because the South East Asian community likes mochi and we’re close to places like Koreatown and Chinatown. We try to decentralize the choices of flavours and toppings depending on the community. In a way it is connecting with what the community wants and catering to that.”

Christine Cooper, author of food blog Coop Speak Eats, took part in the first Blogurt Fest at Menchie’s on November 13, which invited Toronto-based bloggers to try out the frozen yogurt. She chose to combine Green Apple Tart with caramel and cinnamon apples but thinks the toppings bar needs two specific ingredients that are truly representative of the Canuck palate. “I think they should consider adding bacon and maple syrup to their toppings line up,” she suggests. “After all, we are Canadian and we all know that bacon makes everything better.”

Already a bit of a destination, Menchie’s encourages patrons to  “have fun” mixing up their flavour combinations. Health conscious adults can choose to be naughty, by dressing their yogurt with chocolate chips and marshmallows or err on the side of nice with pieces of fruit like pineapple and strawberries.

Cooper says she loves being the architect of her own dessert: “I can still hear my mother’s voice…., ‘stop playing with your food!’,” she says. “Oh how I wished I could have taken her to Menchie’s where it is all about playing with your food.  It is virtually a Rubik’s Cube of dessert.  The possibilities are endless.  Menchie’s is the Fro-Yo version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Can it be any more fun than that?”

Mississauga-based Journalist Beverley Ann D’Cruz blogs about food and nutrition at Potato Chops and Boneless Chicken and Tweets under the handle @Flotch