LAKEVIEW — Among the crowds of young people lining the booths at Forever Yogurt on Belmont in Lakeview, one customer stands out, both for his age and his ability to use a spoon.
One-year-old Scott Washer, dubbed "The Froyo Kid" by his parents, comes to the yogurt shop every week to get a free frozen treat — his family's prize for winning the chain's flavor-naming contest. Candy Cane Crush was the winning entry.
If his clan's enthusiasm is any indicator, the frozen yogurt craze is in full swing in Chicago.
"There's always something new. You can get as much or as little as you want, in whatever combination you want," said Scott's mom, Brenna O'Brien.
But it's not just this Roscoe Village family. Over the last six years, business licenses for frozen yogurt stores have nearly tripled, to 32, according to the city's business license database.
And 2013 is on track to see another increase.
Forever Yogurt, the largest out of Chicago's local chains, has nine locations and is opening another eight more in the city within the next month, said CEO Mandy Calara.
Calara first saw the add-your-own-toppings frozen yogurt concept while traveling in Scottsdale, Ariz., and thought it was right for the Windy City.
"Having very little competition for self-serve frozen yogurt really helped the launch of our initial store," said Calara, who previously ran a vacation rental business as was a professional poker player. "Both the concept and the brand helped us to expand more quickly and gain the local shops."
Calara said he wasn't surprised when smaller mom-and-pop-style frozen yogurt places, peddling a similar concept, started showing up in neighborhoods throughout the city.
"Whenever there's a concept that's not too difficult to replicate and it looks like it's doing well, people will try it," Calara said. "I think we knew it was going to happen, but it makes us focus a little bit more to make sure that we're staying on top of the competition."
One of those competitors is Ali Ozturk, a Turkish immigrant who opened Yogurt Square in the Lincoln Square neighborhood in 2011.
Like Calara, Ozturk has the entrepreneurial spirit and said he wanted to open a business that his 8-year-old son would enjoy. He originally planned on opening a similar shop in Miami, but took over Yogurt Square when a friend couldn't finish the operation. Starting a frozen treat business in a city that's cold half the year, rather than in the sweltering South, was a little nerve-wracking, he said.
"It scared me because I spent a lot of money on it. But without risk, you can't make money," Ozturk said. "We're doing well, and we have loyal customers."
But why frozen yogurt and why now? The froyo craze has long been a part of the dessert scene on the West Coast, said food trends expert Suzy Badaracco, but seems to be just now hitting Chicago.
"Frozen yogurt in general is not this national sweeping thing. We've already known it for decades in this country," Badaracco said. "It's more likely that the local trend is boosting the yogurt shops more than the concept of yogurt themselves."
Badaracco said that the recession drove consumers to spend close to home, hitting up local shops rather than national chains. Pairing that with a create-your-own dessert concept likely hits the spot for customers who are just emerging from financial instability.
"It's that control issue," Badaracco said. "While I'm going into recovery, I still have one hand on the blanket of fear. I still want to have control over certain things in my life. This is a fun way to feel that."
Calara agreed, adding that his young customer base seems to enjoy the interaction and personalization that his business offers. But he added that he thinks it's important that the business keeps up with the trends and continues to offer something novel.
"We've got to stay active and quick to come up with new blends and new flavors for the customers," Calara said. "The businesses that survive will be those that can adapt and change."
Little Scott Washer is hoping Forever Yogurt is one that survives so he can keep cashing in on his weekly treat for the next five years. His favorite flavors so far? Orange and vanilla, with cereal toppings like Fruity Pebbles.
"Yeah," said dad Blake Washer with a smile. "His 6th birthday is going to be rough."