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5 frozen yogurt shops in Pierce County

Our intern takes a crosstown frozen yogurt odyssey with delicious results

Black Bear Frozen Yogurt and Espresso is now open at Sixth and Union in Tacoma

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In the golden era of my youth, when I was about 7 years old, my parents and I frequented the delicious, bison-serving Ruston landmark Tatanka Take-Out. Tatanka is famous for its lean and tasty bison meat, which is applied liberally to burgers, burritos and sandwiches, but my 7-year-old, sweets-loving self was always excited for something else on the menu. Tatanka had a small frozen yogurt machine hidden behind the main cooking area, and for a modest fee, a kid could score some vanilla froyo goodness. Quite unlike ice cream, this wondrous concoction stunned me by emphasizing the sharp taste of the vanilla rather than the thick richness in the cream. Back then, the words "frozen yogurt" and "Tatanka Take-Out" were practically synonymous to me, since Tatanka was the only place I knew of that offered the chilly treat.

Now I am an older, wiser 18-year-old with a sweet tooth that's even more demanding, and the prevalence of frozen yogurt in the Northwest has essentially explodedin the last 11 years. Self-serve froyo shops have started appearing as fast and as furious as the dimples on the faces of their hip, young clientele.

This "froyo phenomenon" in the Northwest can likely be attributed to a northward migration of California-based franchises like Yogurtland, a veritable dreadnought in the business, and Menchie's, a sugary-sweet chain supported by a cast of adorable cartoon characters. Another possible explanation for the surge of sweets is the availability of wholesale YoCream frozen yogurt, which is pre-made, high quality and available in bulk. It is the weapon of choice for nearly all Northwest shops, and has made establishing an independent business infinitely easier by supplying the necessary product.

Though it was perhaps a bit self-serving (sorry!) of me, I decided to take a frozen yogurt tour of greater Tacoma for the purpose of determining once and for all whose yogurt reigns supreme. By the end of my scrumptious pilgrimage, I was quite full and suffering from a bad case of brain freeze, but I had managed to tour five fantastic froyo shops.

Since all cool delicacies are best enjoyed in the company of cool people, I requested the company of Sarah, my partner in crime and a fellow froyo aficionado, and we made our way to Lakewood's Black Bear Frozen Yogurt and Espresso. The first thing that struck us upon entering the establishment was the atmosphere of the interior. It is not so much the interior of a store in a roadside strip mall as the interior of a ski lodge on some mythical Lakewood mountain. We found that Black Bear differs from other prevalent froyo dispensaries in two main ways: it offers coffee in addition to frozen yogurt, and it is not self-serve. Whereas most of the newly established frozen yogurt joints are based on the weigh-and-pay system, in which the customer fills a bowl, puts it on a scale and then pays by the ounce, Black Bear takes the classic approach of preset prices for preset sizes. This system didn't exactly take away any fun from the experience, but I almost felt embarrassed telling the employee behind the counter exactly how much additional candy I wanted in my Maple Bacon Doughnut yogurt. The topping selection was respectable, ranging from Snickers to strawberries, and the yogurt itself had an acute, natural flavor, but as Sarah pointed out, it did seem "a little watery." Overall, I found Black Bear to be a very good place to pass time with friends or family, but I personally believe it prioritizes its atmosphere over its product.

The second leg of our journey brought us to the Stadium-based powerhouse Gibson's Frozen Yogurt Shoppe. Founder Jim Gibson established the shop in January 2011 after returning from a California business trip greatly inspired by frozen yogurt's success there. Gibson was formerly a construction manager working with "telecommunications stuff," and after observing the success and positive community influence frozen yogurt businesses had on communities, he decided "it looked like a fun, rewarding way to make a living."

Following the popular self-serve trend, Gibson's patrons are encouraged to taste the yogurts, fill their bowls to their hearts' content and indulge in as many of the copious toppings as they desire. You can even try a mix of tastes, as each dispensing machine has two levers for deploying the separate flavors as well as a magical middle lever that produces a blend of both. Gibson's raw number of toppings is unmatched as far as I can tell: all manner of fruits, every candy bar imaginable, milk, dark and white chocolate chips, hot fudge and caramel sauce are all among the options. The layout is "modeled after an old ice cream shop," according to Gibson; stools and small tables provide the main seating options. The background music is classic and enjoyable; while we were there, the tunes included The Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" and The Clash's "London Calling." Cool features like moustache discount day, where anyone with a real or fake moustache pays less, provided a downright fun atmosphere. The yogurt itself seemed creamier and fuller than Black Bear's, as if it contained less moisture, though I suppose the flavor selection also seemed to focus less on natural fruity mixtures than Black Bear's and more on sweet crowd pleasers like cheesecake and cookie dough. Located walking distance from a high school may have something to do with Gibson's apparent catering to the younger generation, which in turn may explain why Sarah and I promptly found it to be our favorite.

When I asked Gibson how it is that his yogurt seems to provide a fuller flavor than Black Bear's, despite the fact that it uses the same YoCream yogurt, he chuckled happily and replied, "we have a secret." Whatever this enigmatic "secret" is, it certainly works for me, and it seems to make the yogurt less watery. Though this surely isn't the secret, Lillian Keil, manager of the Stadium branch, informed me that Gibson's "doesn't add water" to its yogurt, while other businesses sometimes do in order to "stretch their supply."

After my wonderful experience at Gibson's, I took a short break from my important yogurt research, and, unable to find anyone to accompany me, resumed the journey on my own. I traveled to The Freeze, a small, stylish, streamlined shop off Bridgeport, and then to Proctor Frozen Yogurt, a North Tacoma delight stationed in a grand house full of history. PFY's owner, Sonja Silver, runs a boutique in the back of the house as well, so if you're into one-stop-shopping, it doesn't get much better than fashion and froyo. As for the actual yogurt at each place, it was certainly good, but the seemingly unmodified YoCream yogurt was not necessarily standout, and the topping selections barely reached half of Gibson's offerings.

As the final stop on my grand adventure, I visited the cute, cuddlyand frighteningly successful California franchise, Menchie's. Upon stepping into the Menchie's off Mildred, I was immediately immersed in an array of cartoon colors, smiley employees and the face of the company's mascot, Menchie himself. Menchie's success isn't only due to a ludicrously welcoming atmosphere, though; in addition to the classic YoCream flavors, the corporation creates its own mixes with remarkably tasty results. When I was there, its relatively new "Pop-arazzi Popcorn" flavor was available, and fairly delightful. The toppings were also well chosen; there seemed to be an equal number of fruit and candy options. Though it wasn't quite enough to make me stray from my newly Gibson's-devoted self, I certainly can understand why the California superpower is as big as it is.

With that, my journey was over, and I was left to contemplate the five holy temples of froyo at which I had paid my respects. My favorite was without doubt Gibson's. Everything about the place stole my heart, and I would have to say Proctor takes second place. Though the yogurt wasn't super special, the old house felt like another worldand was very relaxing. Next in rank is probably Menchie's. The unique flavor offerings are pretty cool, and despite the cheesiness, the cartoon character mascots seemed to elicit from me the kind of childlike glee frozen yogurt deserves. Black Bear and The Freeze were not bad at all, but the overall experiences there did seem somewhat derivative.

I'm just glad the frozen yogurt trend has taken off recently, since my ravenous sweet tooth can be satisfied in a (somewhat) healthy manner by any of these places. If the 7-year-old me were here today, he'd probably cry tears of joy.

Keegan Patterson is an intern from Cahrles Wright Academy.

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