By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Harlem's path to gentrification has brought chain stores, celebrity chef-led restaurants, gourmet grocery stores and high-priced condos in a steady march uptown.
But unlike other city neighborhoods, where Pinkberry, Tasti D-Lite, and Red Mango shops are scattered on every other block, Harlem's fro-yo selection was scarce to nonexistent. A Google search of yogurt shops in Harlem brought up nothing but Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts stores.
That's about to change, as husband and wife frozen yogurt enthusiasts Jason and Tiffany Martin have opened what they believe to be the first stand-alone, self-service frozen yogurt shop in Harlem, Chill Berry, on Lenox Avenue between West 130 and 131st streets.
Some people tried to dissuade the couple from opening in the neighborhood, saying the shop was a bad idea.
"They said: 'You are opening a frozen yogurt shop in Harlem? It won't last,'" said Jason Martin, 37, an entrepreneur previously involved in the printing and music business.
On Wednesday, the shop received a steady flow of foot traffic, with grateful customers approaching the Martins to thank them for slashing their former fro-yo commute.
"A lot of my customers tell me they usually have to go downtown to get frozen yogurt. I'm amazed at the number of the people who went downtown for yogurt," added Jason Martin.
Tiffany Martin, 33, a Harlem school psychologist, said "no one was willing to take the risk," to introduce a fro-yo shop.
The store borrows from what the couple loves about yogurt shops outside of the East Coast. It is self serve and customers pay by weight. Yogurt and toppings cost 40 cents per ounce and the weight of the cup is subtracted. There are also toppings that range from fresh strawberries to cheesecake bites.
By offering free samples, letting customers get as much or as little yogurt as they want and keeping prices affordable, Martin said she feels like she's catering to a Harlem clientele who may not be familiar with the frozen yogurt craze but are interested in healthier desserts.
"The idea is to make sure this is accessible and open to everyone," said head cashier Lalah Butler.
With flavors like red velvet, cake batter, mango tango and a more ice cream-like taste, the store already has regulars after just a few weeks of being open.
"It's better than Pinkberry where it tastes like the yogurt is old," said Iman Harper, 28, who brought her five-month-old daughter Lailah into the store with her.
"They really needed a yogurt shop uptown. There aren't even any nice ice cream shops. You have to go to the chicken places," she said of the ubiquitous fried chicken restaurants.
Gloria Brown came into the shop on a lunch break and said she usually goes to one of several Pinkberrys on the Upper West Side.
"Maybe we've never asked for a yogurt shop," Brown said.
Retired banker Marjorie Richardson, 72, said she was thrilled that the store had opened and was bringing some diversity to the area.
"It's not another chicken and macaroni and cheese restaurant," Richardson said as she snacked on $2.86 worth of frozen yogurt. "I seldomly eat frozen yogurt but this is delicious. I hope they make it."
The store is also an effort by the couple to help Harlem become more healthy. Approximately 4 out of every 10 elementary school kids in Central and East Harlem is overweight or obese, according to the latest city health statistics. Among adults, 9 out of 10 report eating less than the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables and 6 of 10 are overweight or obese.
"I think our kids should have healthy options, not just Mr. Softee," said Tiffany Martin.
The red velvet and cake batter is a hook to draw people in, said Tiffany Martin. The store is planning newer and even healthier options such as green tea and pomegranate.
Chill Berry has yogurt that doesn't have sugar added and some without lactose. The fat-free Mango Tango flavor has 80 calories per 1/2 cup serving. When customers looking for low sugar options balked at the "No Sugar Added Vanilla," flavor, the store simply changed the name to Alpine Vanilla. Now the flavor is a top seller.
The store has also joined in First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! effort aimed at making kids healthier through exercise and better eating. Kids come into the store on school trips and learn the fat content of a serving of yogurt compared to a serving of ice cream or potato chips. They talk about healthy cooking, healthy eating and exercise and get to make their own cup of yogurt.
After the first class, Tiffany Martin said she was encouraged when all of the kids chose fresh fruit toppings instead of Snickers.
"That was huge to me. It showed we are making a difference because we have so many kids who are obese," said Tiffany Martin. "I want to show there are ways to eat healthy."
The store runs an after school special from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. that allows kids to get 10 ounces of yogurt and any three toppings for just $2. A few minutes after school lets out, the kids start flooding in.
Tiffany Martin, who grew up in Harlem, said she's gotten a few negative comments that the store is designed to cater to white people and those with more money and she's had to squelch that thinking quickly.
"We are here to cater to this community. Healthier eating can be for everyone," she said.
The concept is working. The Martins are already in negotiations to open a second Harlem store near City College. The goal is to turn the business into a franchise. The couple realizes they may not have the Harlem frozen yogurt market to themselves for long.
"I don't know what's better, the love or the money. So many people have said they only see stores like this downtown," said Jason Martin. "When we go home at night we take the appreciation people give us that they weren't overlooked."