Getting creative with classics.

Raising the Stakes for Shakes

How creativity, and not calorie cuts, can save the milkshake segment.

The better-for-you food trend is upon us, and with it comes not only a desire to know the exact ingredients in our meals, but also an effort to replace unhealthy ingredients with more nutritious ones.

The ingredient-conscious movement has infiltrated dessert, too, with trendy bakers swapping fat-filled sticks of butter for fiber-rich bananas, black beans, or Greek yogurt.

When it comes to the milkshake, however, the trend has split chefs in two directions. Some embrace it, mixing various hip-nutritious ingredients with their milk and ice cream, while others are blending together as many absurd, unexpected ingredients as possible to keep customers excited to taste the next far-out indulgence, regardless of its caloric content.

“Everyone likes milkshakes!” says chef Andrew Curren of 24 Diner in Austin, Texas. At the diner, they keep up with current food trends by supporting local businesses and using farm-to-table ingredients.

His shakes blend vanilla ice cream with seasonal ingredients like Grade A Vermont maple syrup, local berries, Texas Coffee Traders Espresso, and house-made syrups. Specialties include Coconut Cream, Espresso, Peanut Butter and Chocolate, Chocolate Cherry, and Maple, but Curren says Roasted Banana and Brown Sugar, which “tastes like bananas foster in a glass,” is the most popular.

The diner tries to tap into nostalgic food memories that can elicit an emotional experience, and Curren says nothing does that better than a milkshake.

“Seeing families coming in to celebrate and ordering a shake for the kiddos or runners indulging after completing a 10k truly highlights the emotional aspects of eating and enjoying the calories we consume,” he says.

Now, while many operators are still capitalizing on the experiential aspect of the decadent desert, they are doing so by focusing on never-before-seen combinations, not just nostalgia.

In June 2015, Wayback Burger started serving the Oreo Mud Pie Cricket Protein Milkshake. It crams 96 crickets into a glass with Peruvian Chocolate Cricket Protein powder, hoping to appeal to those seeking environmentally friendly protein alternatives, or, more likely, anyone with a penchant for adventuresome eating.

With the idea of inventive combinations in mind, people have found success in adding ingredients to their shakes that are not traditionally found in dessert dishes, and not shying away from umami, savory, or spicy flavors.

Other restaurants are embracing the funky ingredient trend as well to keep customers excited to try the newest blend. For instance, Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar makes the Twinkie Shake; Chile Pies, an offshoot of Green Chile Kitchen in San Francisco, California, offers shakes with whole slices of pie blended in. The most popular is the house specialty, which includes an apple with green chiles, a cheese-baked crust, and a red chile-honey drizzle.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, meanwhile, used this last season to market its autumnal Spiced Pumpkin Pie Shake, which blends Libby’s pumpkin pie filling, graham cracker crumbs, vanilla soft serve ice cream, and nutmeg.

Milkshakes in quick-service chains have become infamous in recent years for having a high-cal reputation in a health-conscious era; however, these treats remain a classic for people of all ages, and have become the target of some increasingly creative culinary endeavors.

Despite rarely being a health nut’s dream, what seems to be a widespread notion from owners of restaurants selling shakes is that the culture that comes with the timeless, cherry-topped flavors—vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry—is what keeps people coming back, and will continue to do so as long as innovation continues.

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