BY :: Alexandra Fluegel
PHOTOGRAPHER TERRY JOHNSTON
There aren’t many places where customers routinely break out into song, but when it comes to Grand Rapids’ original self-serve frozen yogurt bar Spoonlickers, expecting the unexpected is simply par for the course.
“There’s all kinds of stuff like that that happens,” said Dave Darling, who with wife Diana opened their first store in 2012. Darling said the couple had long wanted to be part of the food scene, but hadn’t been able to find a niche. “We would only make the leap if we could do it uniquely and in a consistent manner.”
After visiting a self-service yogurt shop during a family vacation, Darling said they began considering bringing the concept to Grand Rapids. “We thought it was a novel idea, but it was still missing something important.” That something was fresh, local ingredients.
“All of us are getting programmed into pre-made stuff, and that’s the anti-thesis of what we would ever do if we got into the food business. We said, let’s find a better way; let’s make a better product. Let’s make a Grand Rapids original,” he said.
And they did. The couple’s background in marketing and finance helped them craft a vision for something West Michigan had never seen before and within a few months they’d moved from developing the concept to construction.
On Memorial Day 2012, the doors of the first Spoonlickers store opened in downtown Ada. “It just kind of felt right,” Darling said of the Spoonlickers concept. “We weren’t in a rush, the goals were humble – we said we’d be willing to invest in three stores if three stores presented themselves as good opportunities, and as long as the business paid for itself.”
Though the plans for Spoonlickers quickly fell into place, that didn’t mean it was easy. Both Dave and Diana have full-time day jobs. “That opening week was so hectic that I wanted to sell. I didn’t understand how we’d ever be able to keep up,” Darling said. At peak times during one of the hottest summers on record, Darling said the store was serving 900 customers a day.
In August, a second store opened on the East Beltline near Knapp’s Corner. Darling said the intent was to provide another option for their customers, some of whom were driving miles and miles to savor Spoonlickers goodies.
It’s no surprise that customers are willing to go to great lengths to get their tasty treats either. From the stores’ fun, self-service model and selection of high-quality options to the welcoming staff, every visit to Spoonlickers is something special.
The self-service model allows customers to come in and create their own unique dish, selecting from a variety of yogurts and toppings made from “real ingredients in real kitchens.”
Patrons can select from ten types of yogurt, including the Signature Spoonlickers Original Tart, Tahitian Vanilla, and a rotating selection of fresh-made flavors including Pomegranate, Greek Honey Lemon, and Chipotle Chocolate.
All of the yogurt is made with milk from Michigan and contains only a handful of ingredients that can all be easily pronounced. “It’s the real deal,” said Darling.
In addition to the all-natural yogurt, the stores also carry over 40 toppings ranging from fresh, seasonal fruits in the summer months to fun candies and homemade granolas.
Creating all the high-quality fixings is no easy task though. “We have as much square footage behind the counter as we do in front,” Darling explained. Behind the scenes, staff slice, cut, and prepare the locally-grown fruits used in topping and sauces, as well as cracking and whipping eggs, and creating the day’s rotation of yummy things inspired by Darling’s family as well as staff favorites. “Our recipes keep getting better,” he said.
“We employ a lot of talented people. They’re more than employees, they’re brand ambassadors. They’re on fire about what they’re doing,” said Darling. Staff is always on hand to assist first-time customers as well as provide a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. “We get just as many compliments on the staff as we do the food.”
Though the main mission of Spoonlickers is to provide high-quality, nearly guilt-free options for area dessert seekers, there’s more to the business than what comes in a bowl.
Since opening the business has donated to youth-oriented organizations like Crew Soccer and the Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association (GRAHA), and offer fundraising programs for customers where Spoonlickers hosts events and donates a portion of the proceeds.
In addition to youth activities and opportunities for their customers, Darling said Spoonlickers is used as a means to raise money for breast cancer and support. Both Dave and Diana’s families have been personally touched by the disease, making the cause something near and dear to their hearts.
Pink dominates much of the interior design of the stores and was selected in order to honor the mission of raising money for the cause. “If we could make the business profit, then we said we would donate as much as we could,” Darling said.
The Spoonlickers phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down either, a new store opened on January 2 in Eastown. “We think Eastown will be our best foot forward. We think that the community’s values are right in-line with ours,” Darling said.
The new store will occupy a space on Wealthy in between Jude’s Barbershop and Papa John’s. Darling said they’ve learned a lot with the past two stores and is excited to unveil some new offerings for the latest space. “We have been working for months on a strict vegan, all-natural yogurt,” he said.
“Eastown is clearly an area of the city that gets it. They understand and support businesses with values like ours.”
Offering people something unexpected is Darling’s passion, he said he knows that without customer loyalty, feedback, and satisfaction, the concept would fail. “Our Spoonlickers have really taken to the idea; without them, there is no business, nothing to be passionate about.”