Jan. 22, 2009 – Michael Farah’s phone is buzzing again. Leaning back against his chair, he glances down quickly, looking at it vibrate on the table in front of him. He just got off the phone with an investor, but he has to answer this next call, he explains after politely excusing himself. It’s about his trip to Israel at the end of the week, where he’s going to meet with another potential business associate. It seems everyone wants to get their hands on some Berry Chill.
Or, at the very least, be able to enjoy its light, creamy taste in their mouth.
Opened last March, Berry Chill has become one of Chicago’s most popular spots to get a sweet treat. Berry Chill sells frozen yogurt made with live, active cultures, replacing the artificial chemicals found in most frozen yogurts to help maintain a healthy digestive track and immune system. The result is a healthy indulgence that anyone can enjoy.
Especially Chicago citizens, it seems.
With three locations spread out around the city, Berry Chill’s bright, lime green walls, spotless white plastic tables and chairs and bustling business have become common around the downtown area. And, with plans to open new locations in Belmont and at the Merchandise Mart by the end of the year, that image isn’t going away any time soon.
Berry Chill’s success isn’t just all about the yogurt, though. The store has a whole business concept to match its product – promoting a fun, healthy lifestyle that’s all about making people feel good, inside and out.
It all began with 30-year-old founder and CEO Michael Farah. If it weren’t for the Berry Chill baseball cap donned on his head, you wouldn’t even be able to tell him apart from his customers half the time, because he’s always walking around in a baggy sweater with a dish of yogurt in hand.
Farah, an avid frozen yogurt fan, says it all started when he saw all of the popular frozen yogurt stands popping up on the West Coast. He thought he could do it better.
“I really wanted to do an all natural yogurt concept,” Farah said. “There’s a lot of people that are doing something similar, but they weren’t using all natural products, so it wasn’t truly healthy for you – it wasn’t real yogurt.”
In order to fall under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s official definition of yogurt, the product must be produced by mixing authorized dairy ingredients with a specialized culture that contains the bacteria lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus. This yogurt may contain other live and active cultures that are safe and healthy, as well.
Since frozen yogurt is a non-standardized food, however, it is not subject to these standards.In fact, according to the National Yogurt Association’s website, AboutYogurt.com, some “frozen yogurt” products use a heat-treated procedure to develop their yogurt. This process heats the yogurt after culturing, killing the beneficial bacteria and live and active cultures.
That’s not the case with Farah’s Berry Chill frozen yogurt, or yogurt couture, as they like to call it. With the help of local gastroenterologist Dr. Mitchell S. Kaplan, as well as other dairy and yogurt scientists, Farah created a dessert made from real frozen yogurt.It contains 12 different probiotics, microorganisms introduced into the body for all kinds of health benefits. Not only that, but Berry Chill yogurt is both gluten and lactose free.Compare that to the artificial chemicals and the two or three bacterial you’ll find in most frozen yogurts.
“You know, I didn’t want to take an article or just take some research as the fact of what we’re going to go by,” Farah said. “I wanted an actual doctor to bounce off our information from and have an educated discussion about what people need and what people are looking for that have digestion problems.”
That weird, processed taste in your mouth, the bloated, heavy feeling you get after you’re done eating, and that slow, steady gurgling rumbling in the pit of your stomach – it’s these reactions Farah’s tried to avoid with his Berry Chill concept.
“When you go to Coldstone or a Jamba Juice or one of those places, sometimes you feel sick after eating, because they’re using artificial flavoring and artificial colors,” Farah said. “You’re body doesn’t react the right way to eating it.Our yogurt just leaves a fresh taste in your mouth.”
For many, the best part is the calorie count.Without the toppings, each ounce of Berry Chill yogurt couture is about 20 calories, or 120 calories for a small scoop.
“It’s not surprising people have heard about this,” said Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian in the Chicago area and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “Nutritionally, Berry Chill has slight advantages.It tends to have less fat and more protein.”
Blatner also likes Berry Chill so much because the National Yogurt Association gave the yogurt their Live and Active Cultures seal. Frozen yogurt with this seal of approval has at least 10 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacture.According to Blatner, these live, active cultures really provide the extra health benefits to your immune system and digestive track.
“Everyone’s becoming more health conscious,” Farah said. “The amount of people that are lactose intolerant is on the rise, people that have gluten allergies are becoming a lot more prevalent, so I wanted to create a product that wasn’t just treated as a dessert.”
Not to say that Berry Chill can’t be your dessert of choice, however.When ordering a scoop of Berry Chill yogurt couture, customers can choose from up to four different flavors.They can have either the light, tangy, standard original or one of the three unique flavors of the month that Berry Chill fans vote for online. What’ll be the choice this time, the sweet and spicy Pumpkin Spice? Rich Chocolate Amaretto? Or Mint Chocolate that leaves a fresh taste in your mouth and on your breath?
Each scoop of yogurt can also be ordered with as many of Berry Chill’s 42 assorted toppings as you like. Three rows of small, metal containers are displayed in the front glass casing, lined up one after another as your eyes are drawn to all the bright colors like a kid in a candy store – literally. For your sweet tooth there’s cereal, chocolate chips, cookies, sprinkles and various candies.You can make your yogurt even healthier, too, with options like granola, assorted nuts and fresh fruit that’s cut daily.
But even after the low calorie count, fresh taste and extra health benefits, Berry Chill still tries to give you more.
Just look at the store’s hours. Looking for somewhere quick to get a yummy bite to eat before you finally head home after a late Friday or Saturday night? Their downtown location on the corner of State and Ontario Street is open until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4 a.m. on the weekends. According to Benjamin Foreman, a Berry Chill managing partner, customers appreciate it, too.
“It’s just a lot of things other companies aren’t,” Foreman said. “For example, you go to Starbucks and put money on your card, and you don’t get anything from it.With the Berry Chill Culture Club card, you get a 10 percent bonus every time you add money, and 3 percent of each sale goes to a different charity.”
Charities include Girl Scouts of America, Meals on Wheels and the American Red Cross, and Foreman said they hope to cater their charities toward individual communities as they expand.
And Berry Chill delivers via smart cars or Esynergy scooters, a three-wheel, stand-up ride that resembles a Segway. There’s no delivery charge, but orders must be a minimum of $20.
“There’s no frozen yogurt places that deliver,” Farah said. “We wanted to have something different about ours with that.”
Different – maybe that word, more than anything, describes the Berry Chill concept.
“We just kind of wing it,” Farah said. “We experiment and we find out what works and what doesn’t work.”
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