WASHINGTON, D.C. - It's 8 a.m., and the Dupont Circle location here of frozen yogurt chain Pinkberry is open for business.
Frozen yogurt for breakfast?
Not necessarily. This store is one of 17 Pinkberrys across the U.S. that's been testing adding plain Greek yogurt to the menu since June, and customers are here for their protein fix.
Legil Moody, a trainer at Washington Sports Club next door, stopped in on his way to work to pick up breakfast: Greek yogurt topped with dark chocolate granola, raspberries, blueberries, chocolate shavings and cinnamon honey.
"I'm hooked," says the 34 year-old. "Pretty much four or five times out of the week I'm in here. That's my morning."
A growing number of Americans are making Greek yogurt part of their mornings - to the tune of $1.2 billion in projected sales by the end of this year, says market researcher Mintel.
And brands including Pinkberry, Ben & Jerry's and even PepsiCo are all trying to lure health-conscious customers with their own versions of the newest craze in the dairy aisle.
A real growth opportunity
Pinkberry, a high-end franchise from Los Angeles, is known for its fresh and tangy frozen yogurt in seasonal flavors, paired with everything from fruit to nuts to cookie crumbs. Now customers in markets including L.A., Boston and Washington, D.C., can add those toppings to plain Greek yogurt.
"We think it's a very natural evolution and progression," CEO Ron Graves says of entering the Greek yogurt market. "We've always been about yogurt and about fresh."
The stores are opening earlier to accommodate the fact that Americans often eat yogurt for breakfast, Graves says. The menu also offers savory yogurt combinations traditional in Europe, such as one topped with pesto, olives and tomatoes.
The high protein content of Greek, or strained, yogurt - in some cases a serving is packed with as much protein as a 3-ounce portion of meat or fish, or about 18 grams - has contributed to soaring sales in the yogurt industry. Now dozens of variations from both newer and traditional yogurt brands are stocked on grocery shelves.
As of last month, Greek yogurt represents almost 36% of all yogurt sales, vs. about 24% this time last year, says SymphonyIRI.
"We are in the middle of I think a Greek yogurt revolution," says Nicki Briggs, spokeswoman and dietitian for Greek yogurt company Chobani, which has not only gained half of the Greek yogurt market in the U.S. since launching in 2007 but is the No. 1 selling yogurt brand overall in grocery stores.
But it's still in its infancy, she and other experts say. The U.S. lags way behind Europe in yogurt consumption, and Americans smitten with the thicker and highly nutritious version of yogurt are still in the minority.
"A lot of consumers in this country haven't tried Greek yogurt yet," Briggs says.
And for that reason, on top of it being a product that delivers nutritional value at a time when more Americans are watching what they eat, dairy companies see opportunity to grow.
A well-deserved 'health halo'
Pinkberry's Greek offering comes in "snack" and "meal" sizes - which have 12 and 18 grams of protein respectively - and has an accompanying menu of recommended pairings, although customers can build their own. Graves says customers are "really embracing it," and the yogurt will come to all of Pinkberry's more than 200 stores by the end of the year.
Ben & Jerry's introduced four Greek frozen yogurt flavors in February: Raspberry Fudge Chunk, Peanut Butter Banana, Blueberry Vanilla Graham and Strawberry Shortcake.
Samples were very popular, and the company was getting so much interest from grocery stores that it decided to launch the Greek fro-yo in its ice cream shops and by the pint at the same time, says spokesman Sean Greenwood. Usually new flavors are put in the shops first to gauge customer enthusiasm.
But it's paying off. Greenwood says sales are up overall and "we're seeing Greek yogurt as part of that."
In early July, Dannon opened a storefront called The Yogurt Culture Company in New York City, offering both regular and Greek yogurt that can be paired with different toppings.
Chobani also opened a Greek yogurt bar last week in New York City, selling yogurt with eight topping combinations and prepackaged yogurt cups. PepsiCo recently announced a partnership with a German dairy company to sell yogurt, including Greek, in the U.S.
"Definitely there's a health halo around it, and it's deserved," says Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian and author.
And Briggs says it's a trend that has staying power: "It's something that people have integrated into their lifestyle."
And not just the refrigerated form. Rickland Orchards introduced a Greek yogurt-dipped granola bar in February that comes in six flavors. They're sold in more than 12,000 stores, and co-founders Jason Cohen and Michael Sands say they expect $20 million in sales by the end of the year. They also plan to introduce Greek-yogurt-covered dried fruit, nuts and a cereal this fall.
"The opportunity is really unlimited," Cohen says.
By Hadley Malcolm, USA TODAY