How a fro-yo feud with Demi Lovato affected the Bigg Chill

It’s practically Bigg Chill law to photograph your swirled frozen yogurt in front of the shop’s giant neon sign, which casts a warm, pink glow on Olympic Boulevard every afternoon and well into the night.

Revered for its photogenic fro-yo mountains and decadent vegan cookie dough, the sweet spot is a West Los Angeles staple among locals who have enjoyed its chilly treats for more than three decades. But the Bigg Chill’s notoriety skyrocketed this week after pop star Demi Lovato picked a public fight with the beloved business on Instagram.

Big mistake, Demi.

Lovato’s scathing remarks about the shop’s offerings instantly backfired, prompting an outpouring of support for the Bigg Chill, as well as an apology from the “Sorry Not Sorry” singer, who had accused the company of enabling disordered eating and a toxic diet culture by selling sugar-free cookies and “other diet foods.”

“People are just really shocked,” said Cary Russell, co-owner of the Bigg Chill, on a recent phone call with The Times. “They’re shocked by how she came at us. And so were we. It was like, wait, why is she attacking us? What did we do?”

The Bigg Chill responded to Lovato’s complaints by explaining that its menu is designed to accommodate customers’ varying dietary needs and restrictions with its myriad fat-, gluten-, dairy- and sugar-free products ranging from fro-yo to potato chips.

Its diverse nutritional choices are appreciated among the shop’s loyal fans, who have continued to show up for the Bigg Chill on social media and in person after Lovato’s outburst. According to Russell, the business’ Instagram inbox has been “out of control,” flooded with thousands of supportive messages. And its following on that platform has ballooned from 6,000 to more than 42,000 in less than a week.

Tuesday at 8:30 p.m., the night of 4/20, the long line for fro-yo wrapped around the shop, past five storefronts, all the way down to Bueller’s Bagels on the opposite end of the overflowing parking lot. Inside, a few bustling employees cranked out soft serve at warp speed behind a counter topped by three large tip jars brimming with cash.

A person in gloves and a face mask handing a bowl of frozen yogurt over the counter to another person in a face mask

Justo Garcia serves a customer Thursday at the Bigg Chill frozen yogurt shop in Los Angeles.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In the crowded queue was David Li, a 27-year-old aerospace engineer based in Beverly Grove who has patronized the Bigg Chill with his girlfriend at least once a week for about two years. He’s fond of the shop’s signature vegan cookie dough, especially after his partner recently eliminated animal products from her diet.

Because he is lactose intolerant, Li also values the Bigg Chill’s dairy-free options — though sometimes even he can’t resist the shop’s dairy delights, lactose intolerance be damned. (His favorite Bigg Chill order is the fat- and gluten-free vanilla classic fro-yo with vegan sugar cookie dough and Reese’s peanut butter sauce.)

“I heard that there was a big commotion … on Twitter, and I just wanted to show my support,” he told The Times, musing that Lovato neglected to consider “the big picture” when sharing her thoughts on Instagram. “They have vegan cookie dough, and it’s some of the best we’ve had in the city, so we just want to come and get our favorite treat.”

A long line of customers on the sidewalk outside the Bigg Chill frozen yogurt shop

Customers line up for frozen yogurt Tuesday night outside the Bigg Chill in Los Angeles.

(Christi Carras / Los Angeles Times)

Like Li, much of Tuesday’s clientele was already familiar with the Bigg Chill prior to Lovato’s social media takedown. But the occasional dead giveaway revealed some first-timers: Only a Bigg Chill noob, for example, would exclaim, “Oh no, it’s cash only!” upon reaching the front of the line. Rookie mistake.

Before reading Lovato’s comments in The Times, Rusen Seran had never heard of the Bigg Chill. A fro-yo lover, the 32-year-old assistant hotel manager decided to make the 25-minute trip from West Hollywood and give the shop “a chance,” despite harboring doubts about its most popular menu items. (Cookie dough is not his go-to topping.)

“[Lovato] can type anything on her social media,” Seran said. “I’m not protesting her. Maybe I will have the same idea [as] her after visiting here.”

A mix of Bigg Chill virgins and veterans, Jonathan Amar and his friends stopped by the fro-yo shop Tuesday night for a reward after rock climbing nearby. While growing up in Pacific Palisades, the 22-year-old software engineer frequented the Bigg Chill because it boasted “the best fro-yo,” including kosher options for his family.

A gloved hand holds a cup of vanilla frozen yogurt assorted toppings

Justo Garcia holds a customer’s frozen yogurt with an assortment of toppings Thursday at the Bigg Chill in Los Angeles.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The young climbers “always have a hard time finding dessert places” because one of them can’t eat dairy, said Romana Maralit of Beverlywood. (The 24-year-old claims specialist said she recently crowned the Big Chill “best soft serve” over Disneyland in her personal power rankings.)

“Having a lot of options — especially in a big city — is kind of necessary to keep your brand going,” said 25-year-old Jennifer Beatty, the anti-dairy member of the group who is pursuing a PhD in marine biology at the University of Southern California. “There’s certain … ice cream places that I don’t go to because I know they don’t have vegan options.”

Though she sympathized with Lovato’s disdain for diet culture, 22-year-old Quinn McGannon of Westchester thought the “Dancing With the Devil” artist‘s move to single out the Bigg Chill was counterproductive. Plus, McGannon can always count on the shop’s animal-friendly alternatives when her vegan sister comes to town.

“I think [Lovato] was attacking the … wrong thing,” said McGannon, an international relations student at Loyola Marymount University. “If you want to come for diet culture, maybe go for the corporations who make millions off of it and not the small, local businesses who are just trying to get by during a pandemic.”

Despite the store’s popularity, Russell confirmed that the public health crisis has hit the Big Chill hard. Before COVID-19 arrived, it employed a rotating staff of 17. That number has since dwindled to seven, with former employees afraid to return to the front lines of the food service industry. The store has also been forced to reduce its hours, now operating from 2 to 10 p.m.

“They all left … they were terrified,” Russell said. “I will eventually go back [to pre-pandemic hours of operation]. It’s gonna take some time.”

A large, circular, blue and pink neon sign that reads "The Bigg Chill Frozen Yogurt"

Customers approach the Bigg Chill frozen yogurt shop Thursday in Los Angeles.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The limited Bigg Chill staff was also the subject of Lovato’s ire this week as the Grammy nominee berated the business for “terrible” service contributing to an overall “triggering and awful” experience. But Tuesday’s regulars told a different story.

“It’s very difficult for a place like this to maintain a family feel and generate the kind of business that they do,” said 58-year-old Sukha Gildart, a dance instructor at UCLA who has been coming to the Bigg Chill for 27 years and knows its employees on a first-name basis. “This place has been home. It’s been heart. It’s been a place to return to.”

“The customer service is always really nice,” echoed Will, a 22-year-old international relations student at LMU who requested his last name be omitted. “The staff is very attentive, and even if you come toward the end of the day … they never make you feel bad for coming in toward close, so it’s just a really welcoming atmosphere.”

True to Will’s word, the Bigg Chill kept its doors open more than half an hour after 10 p.m. Tuesday, patiently serving anyone who entered the line before — and even some stragglers who trickled in after — closing time. As for Lovato, Russell said the store hasn’t been in touch with the performer since her “apology that’s not so much of an apology” and has no plans to alter its menu.

“I couldn’t believe that she would attack us like that,” Russell said. “All she had to do is pick up the phone and call me. I would have had a conversation with her and probably handled it and felt differently about it. But I felt like she just came at us and wanted to fight and accused us of things that weren’t right.”



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