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Shaking Things Up

A once-overlooked category with tremendous “wow” potential, shakes are enjoying a revival, fueled in part by better-burger concepts like GO Burger in New York and Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of melissa hom for go burger. The flavor revolution has reached the iconic milk shake, rekindling memories and sparking menu innovations

By Joan Lang

You want a shake with that burger? Yup, you do. This iconic treat, part beverage, part snack, part dessert, has become the perfect accompani­ment to the better-burger trend, but it’s also cropping up on other kinds of menus as well, in forms and flavors both traditional and upgraded.

“Milk shakes are an American original,” says Donald Sargent, owner of two Morelli’s Ice Cream shops in Atlanta, the newest of which features an old-fashioned milk-shake bar dispensing fountain-style shakes and sodas as well as ice cream sundaes.

Lest you wrongly think this is a strictly old-school development, Sargent has created shake flavors like Praline and Peach Melba and partnered with local whiz-kid and “Top Chef” finalist Kevin Gillespie, who developed such specialties as the Mexican Malted Milk Shake, with chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, malt, cinnamon and chipotle chile, and the Chocolate Chimp, featuring chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup and bananas.

Other variations on Morelli’s milk-shake theme include The Island, with vanilla ice cream, pineapple, banana and rum, and the Black  Forest Malt, combining  chocolate, malt, cherries and whipped cream.

That’s how it goes with milk shakes these days. They’re getting a high-profile goose from chef-driven burger concepts like Shake Shack (Danny Meyer’s booming New York City-based chainlet), Flip Burger in Atlanta (where chef/owner Richard Blais makes them with liquid nitrogen in such flavors as Krispy Kreme and, yes, foie gras) and Bobby’s Burger Palace (as in Bobby Flay, who adds malted as well as Spiked Milk Shakes to the mix).

Of course, the burger-and-shake concept is nothing new. Steak ’n Shake has been specializing in steakburgers and hand-dipped milk shakes for more than 75 years, keeping things interesting with branded mix-ins like M&M’s and Nestlé Butterfinger, as well as such seasonal flavors as Key lime and peach. There are half-priced “happy hour” shake and drink specials and a unique “Side-by-Side” shake that mixes any two classic flavors into the likes of a Van-ocolate or a Straw-nana.

Chick-fil-A is relatively new to the shake game, having introduced its most-wished-for new item, Hand-Spun Milk Shakes, in May 2006; the dessert quickly proved to be one of the most craveable products on the menu, according to Mark Baldwin, spokesman for the 1,550-unit chain. There are four mainstay flavors — chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and Cookies & Cream — but Chick-fil-A keeps the momentum going with LTOs and seasonal specialties like peach and the holidays’ Peppermint Chocolate Chip.

Milk shakes are a good vehicle for add-ons. At Kitchenette in New York City, baked goods adorn the shakes, served in Mason jars for a nostalgic touch. Photo courtesy of kitchenette. New this summer is the Banana Pudding Milk Shake, a liquid play on the classic Southern comfort-food dessert made with fresh bananas, Nilla wafers, vanilla and Chick-fil-A’s Icedream soft-serve, then finished with whipped cream and a cherry. Promoted via Facebook with the promise of tasting “just like Grandma’s banana pudding recipe,” the milk shake has been a huge hit, says Baldwin. Collectively, milk shakes capture 5 to 6 percent of sales and have been ordered as early as 8 a.m. for breakfast, but more often for dessert and as a mid-afternoon snack.

Still, creating the shakes was not without its challenges for the Atlanta-based chain.

“We were determined to serve real, hand-spun shakes, not ones dispensed from a machine, but because of our drive-thru and service times, we needed to have them ready in 30 to 40 seconds, rather than the usual two minutes,” explains Baldwin. “And, of course, taste and quality had to come first.”

Using soft-serve, an existing product, gives the shakes a head start.

Michael Kornick, chef-owner of DMK Burger Bar as well as MK and the new Fish Bar in Chicago, had technical matters of another sort to resolve with his milk shakes.

“Basically, we went backward in time and technology to produce an old-fashioned,  thick, slightly lumpy shake,” says Kornick, who reveals that while flavors and ingredients are never a problem for a chef, he figured you just had to get the right ice cream, plug in the blender and go. “We were not getting the right texture. We wanted something that was too thick to drink with a straw.”

He had the diner-style stainless-steel-cup mixers, but not the right technique, until he talked to self-professed milk-shake expert Marty Rubin, veteran of an operation in Philadelphia that moves as many as 200 shakes a day. Rubin took one look at Kornick’s freezer cabinet and declared it too warm.

“The ice cream needs to be hard as a rock; otherwise, it blends smooth and thin before it gets creamy,” says Kornick.

After resetting the temperature, Rubin came back the next day and demo’d a three-stage process still seen in old-style open diners, unlike the single-stage in which you stick the canister up into the blender with everything in it and then walk away until the sound changes.

“That’s not the right way,” Kornick explains. “You have to start with half the ice cream and the milk and flavorings, start the blend, and then add more ice cream so the shake gets thick, creamy and lumpy.” The final stage is a decorative accent of the flavor in its richest form, such as rich chocolate syrup.

Not surprising for a chef with Kornick’s credentials, the shakes are all about high-quality flavor and ingredients, like bittersweet chocolate chips and a coffee reduction from the pastry chef, used for the espresso shake.

“I just figured they’d be a nice thing to have with the burger-and-beer focus, but they’ve been amazingly popular,” says Kornick, who reports they are ordered by an average of 10 to 15 percent of customers on any given day.

Milk shakes represented a logical upsell item for Lisa Hall and Ann Nickinson, co-owners of Kitchenette, a New York City spot that specializes in food like you’d get at Grandma’s house: fried chicken, homemade pickles, four-cheese baked macaroni, and turkey meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, plus Alfredo’s Mexican Blue Plate Specials (roast Yucatan chicken and shredded-beef soft tacos) on weeknights.

“We’ve always had beer and wine, but it’s never been that significant in terms of sales for us,” says Nickinson. “We needed a premium item that would be more appropriate for a neighborhood-style place that attracts a lot of families and locals.”

They also wanted something that would help get more mileage out of Kitchenette’s cookies and other baked goods, including broken cookies and crumbs.

T.G.I. Friday’s is one of a growing number of restaurants offering grown-up shakes. Its new Guinness Stout Milk Shake is a rich, smooth blend of Guinness Stout, chocolate syrup and vanilla ice cream. Photo courtesy of t.g.i. friday’s. The $6 to $7 milk-shake menu was quietly introduced and then later promoted more heavily, introducing customers to shakes like the Peanut Butter Blondie (vanilla ice cream, peanut butter and Nutter Butter cookies, topped with whipped cream and a mini peanut butter cookie) and Strawberry Shortcake (vanilla and strawberry ice cream with vanilla cake). The shakes are served in Mason jars for a little added nostalgia.

“They’ve been very popular, especially with brunch or a burger,” says Nickinson, “but we also get a lot of people coming in at around 3 o’clock for an after-school milk-shake snack.”

Morelli’s Don Sargent was so impressed with the popularity of the limited selection of shakes at his first ice cream shop — particularly the signature spicy Mexican Milk Shake — that shakes, sodas and sundaes were moved into a central role at the second location, which opened this summer.

The fully visible shake bar features red-and-white striped walls, cookie- and ice-cream-sandwich shaped cushions and a full-time “shaketender” dispensing made-to-order thick shakes into old-style graduated fountain milk-shake cups, along with egg creams, ice cream sodas and sundaes.

“We wanted people to be able to have all those delicious ice cream treats,” explains Sargent. “With all the popularity of yogurt, I think people have really started to miss ice cream. With every new yogurt shop that opens, I get 10 new customers.”

Sargent, who named Morelli’s for his wife’s maiden name, knows ice cream — and distinctive flavors. Born in Brazil but having lived in New York City, he’d seen lots of wonderful ice cream and desserts, but no one was doing what he envisioned in Atlanta.

“Basically, we’re making American-style ice cream with gelato machines, which give you great texture, creaminess and richness,” he says. “And we’ve kept our ice cream honest, homemade and full of flavor.”

Flavors, in fact, range from the familiar to the truly exotic. The rotating selection might feature Black Sesame Seed, Athena’s Feta, Red Bean, Karachi Kulfi, Maple-Bacon Brittle and Strawberry-Rosewater.

That flavorful spirit was translated into the milk-shake program at the newer location, where several Gillespie-inspired items appear on the shake menu.

“We have a theory when it comes to all our products,” notes Sargent. “We want them to taste good, of course, but we also want to do something no one else is doing and have a real ‘wow’ factor.

“That’s how you get the community to really embrace you — when you’re not doing the same thing every other place is doing.”


About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.