Serendipity Sweets Seeks to Be Everyone's Treat
How a star-crossed dessert shop is striving to reverse its fortunes
When good fortune occurs by happenstance, it's said to be serendipity. When Allyson Minor stumbled upon Frogurtz, the now-defunct frozen yogurt shop neighboring the former Burhenn's Pharmacy on East 38th Street, she stumbled upon something that made her young autistic son consistently happy. As a mother, that was good enough for her. The two returned every day, building close friendships with the owners and employees along the way.
So when Frogurtz closed its doors in March of 2019, "everyone was crushed." When the nearby CVS Pharmacy on East 38th and Pine bought Buhrenn's and assumed its employees and accounts, the Buhrenn's building that also housed Frogurtz was put up for sale.
Minor, who is a senior lecturer in hospitality management at Mercyhurst University, had long dreamt of opening her own bakery — partnering with the "best pastry chef I could find." The Frogurtz closing was an impetus to follow that dream — with a slight pivot. Frozen yogurt would feature prominently along with gluten-free baked goods (Minor suffers from celiac disease) and vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options, culminating in a truly all-inclusive, worry-free sweets shop. Minor hates reading labels, so she would not have her customers do so either.
With the purchase of ice cream machines (frozen yogurt is merely ice cream with yogurt cultures added) as a gift for her son's ninth birthday, her plans were officially underway. However, they would quickly take a twist when national fro-yo franchise Pinkberry opened a location in the West Erie Plaza, exactly the area Minor had been targeting for her new business. But as luck would have it, a storefront at 863 E. 38th St. would become available to her — the very same address where Frogurtz had operated.
And with that, dreams were emulsified into reality, firming up for an official opening in the chill of early 2020. Appropriately, the dessert shop would be called Serendipity Sweets.
Then COVID-19 hit. Less than two weeks after Serendipity's soft opening on March 6, all "non-essential" Pennsylvanian businesses were ordered to shut down — a cruel reminder of how quickly circumstances can sour, and how fate can leave a bitter aftertaste.
Minor knew there would be challenges. East Erie can be notoriously slow to support new businesses, and just around the bend and a mile up the road lies Dairy Queen Pine Avenue, long a fixture in the frozen confectionery sector. But adding a pandemic on top of that? It hasn't exactly been whipped cream and cherries. In fact, Minor believes the current climate for new businesses "may be worse than the Great Depression."
That's a bold statement, but may not be all that out of line, especially coming from someone within the hard-struck food and hospitality industry. Even if people back then couldn't regularly afford to go out to eat, they weren't afraid to and they were always allowed to. The repercussions from COVID-19 have been "debilitating," Minor admits.
After enjoying early momentum pre-pandemic, the aftermath has been an uphill climb. Serendipity hadn't been open long enough to qualify for assistance, and all the money that would've been poured into advertising and promotion has been diverted into merely "keeping the lights on." Minor works for free on Wednesdays and Thursdays so her three employees — two of them Frogurtz carryovers — can take home a paycheck. She's lowered prices. She's followed the rules — the Erie County Department of Health even named Serendipity one of its "star players" for workplace and customer safety. "I don't know how else to gain ground."
That's without mentioning the product, which is honestly delightful, unless you're lactose intolerant even if you are lactose intolerant. In addition to frozen yogurt, Serendipity Sweets offers coconut milk soft serve and sorbet, which are both dairy-free. The cold stuff — fro-yo, sorbet, and all — is sourced from Russellville, Arkansas supplier Honey Hill Farms, champions of real dairy, real fruit purees, and real ingredients. On any given day, Serendipity offers what it calls its "Core 4" — vanilla, chocolate, and cheesecake frozen yogurts and mango sorbet — for consistency. The other two handles rotate weekly for variety. As with other fro-yo purveyors, customers can accessorize their cups with an assortment of toppings, including cookies, candies, and fruits.
Unlike other fro-yo purveyors, Serendipity also offers housemade cookies, cupcakes, and fro-yo pies — its (much more affordable) answer to ice cream cakes. In addition, customers can grab pre-packaged, certified gluten-free brownie or Rice Krispie treats to go. Minor will not back down from her commitment to provide for all dietary restrictions and needs. "I keep reiterating to people that gluten-free DOES NOT equal crap. I don't know why that perception's out there, but that needs to change." When a nine-year-old girl with celiac disease asked Minor what was safe for her to eat, Minor replied "you can have anything you want." To see that girl's face light up was all the affirmation she needed.
In the next 6-8 years, that girl will likely apply for and land her first job. Minor hopes that Serendipity will stick around long enough to see her son land his. "My son is so much more than a cart pusher," she says through tears. She aims to implement a summertime internship program for working-age students, including those with developmental disabilities such as autism. "Corporate organizations are afraid to put people with disabilities out there, but there is so much room for growth in food service."
Before that, however, Serendipity can't melt in COVID-19's fever heat. To prevent that, Minor has been taking notes from her own lectures: "Be as accommodating as you possibly can." Customers can order online and collect their goods from the newly-installed drive-up window or head into the brightly decorated store with their masks on for self-service. Employees follow behind each customer party to sanitize the fro-yo handles after use. Toppings are sealed in plastic condiment containers to limit shared serving utensils and keep lines moving. Tables are spaced the required six feet apart and bench seating is available outside.
The end result is treats safe for your tummy in a space safe for the community. Now it just has to show up and eat them. One of the shop's slogans is to "sugar-coat everything" — which is sometimes easier said than done. Although reality isn't always dispensed in the funnest of flavors, to beat the odds and prevail over it is always sweet.
After all, not all good fortune is by accident.
Serendipity Sweets is located at 863 E. 38th St. and open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Matt Swanseger (email@example.com) wrote the entirety of this article in a sweltering apartment and is past due for a sorbet.