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Shaking Things Up

Milkshakes and smoothies offer opportunities for customization.


The Functional and the Familiar

Selecting the ingredient mix for a customizable milkshake and smoothie program is one of the most important considerations for operators. The menu needs to be broad enough to convey a sense of choice but not so diverse that it creates waste or reduces freshness.

Some of the top ingredients to consider include:

Milk alternatives

Milk alternatives

While nut milks such as almond and cashew have seen increasing demand, Nicky Kruse, strategist at The Culinary Edge, suggests other milk alternatives such as oat, pea, hemp and coconut are becoming more mainstream.

Superfood supplements

Superfood supplements

Consumers are seeking functional ingredients that offer physical benefits, such as an energy boost, emotional benefits, such as a calming effect, or nutritional benefits, such as specific vitamins, says Kruse. Examples include plant-based proteins such as pea protein and hemp.

Nostalgic flavors

Nostalgic flavors

Not all consumers will want to experiment with new or unfamiliar flavors all the time. Many will gravitate to the comfort and familiarity of the brands they know and love for their milkshake or smoothie.

Seasonal fruit

Seasonal fruit

Offering seasonal fruits is one way to refresh the milkshake and smoothie menu. They can be incorporated as limited time offers for example. Also consider exotic fruits that are gaining in popularity, such as yuzu.

Nuts and nut butters

Nuts and nut butters

Peanut butter is one of the most popular add-ins at Smoothie King, where customers may be seeking some added protein for their smoothie in a familiar, flavorful form.

The customization craze has long been present in the shakes and smoothies category, where consumers are accustomed to personalizing their beverages with a variety of ingredient choices.

Nondairy milk substitutes have emerged as popular options, as have “boosts” or add-ins such as vitamin powders and dietary supplements in the smoothie category especially. As for milkshakes, plant-based dairy alternatives have also gained traction, but consumers also view these beverages as a treat and have gravitated toward shake options that incorporate their favorite flavors.

Before launching a customizable shake and/or smoothie offering, operators must consider how important it is in the context of their overall operations, says Maeve Webster, president of culinary consulting firm Menu Matters.

“If they are a key element of revenue and profits, and may also be key in driving guest satisfaction, then they should probably devote more time, space and training to a somewhat more extensive selection of customizing options,” she says. “If these categories are ‘nice-to-haves’ for the restaurant but contribute little by way of revenues, profit, satisfaction or traffic, then it's likely a more limited but carefully curated selection of options will fit fine.”

Here are five additional tips for adding customizable milkshakes and smoothies to your menu:

Set the right inventory for milkshakes and smoothies

Offering guests the ability to customize their milkshake or smoothie orders can “easily lead to an unmanageably large back of house or bar area” when you consider all the ingredient possibilities, says Webster.

“To be successful, this needs to be a manageable selection from an operations point of view,” she says, citing the need to minimize waste and maximize freshness, while at the same time offering enough options to maximize the program’s reach or appeal.

Operators will need to decide based on their customer base if they want to lean more heavily toward familiar, traditional and rewarding milkshake and smoothie options, or if they want to go in the opposite direction, or perhaps land somewhere in the middle.

“That will be driven entirely by who they currently serve and who they want to serve in the future,” says Webster. “There will definitely not be a one-size fits all to this approach.”

Pre-set milkshake and smoothie options

Most operators who offer customizable shake and smoothie programs also menu a selection of suggested combinations to help streamline the ordering process and the workflow.

Smoothie King, for example, offers dozens of pre-set, named smoothie combinations tailored to individual dietary goals. However, last year 38 percent of customers still customized their orders in some way, according to a spokesperson for the Dallas-based chain. In fact, customization is encouraged — employees are trained to ask each guest if they would like add an extra ingredient or an enhancer to their order.

The most popular added ingredients at Smoothie King are:

  • peanut butter
  • energy boost
  • multivitamin
  • whey protein
  • vanilla frozen yogurt

Even My Milkshake, the San Jose, Calif.-based operator that built its concept around the ability to customize milkshake orders, offers a pre-set menu of “Awesome Shakes” for customers seeking a rewarding snack or dessert item and “Active Shakes” for those seeking an energy boost or post-workout snack.

Among the treats offered for customization at My Milkshake, in addition to the variety of milk and ice cream, according to its online menu, are

  • assorted candies (regular and premium)
  • assorted fruits (bananas, strawberries, mangoes and pineapple)
  • brownies
  • cheesecake
  • cookies

Functional milkshake and smoothie ingredients

Nancy Kruse, a strategist at The Culinary Edge, says the biggest trend in the customizable shakes and smoothies category is the use of functional ingredients.

“Consumers are demanding beverages that are hard-working and functional,” she says, citing benefits such as an energy boost, a calming effect or nutritional benefits.

Superfood supplements have emerged as a key component of a successful customizable smoothie program, says Kruse.

“Supplements have come a long way from just protein powder,” she says. “The next level of superfood supplements are table stakes for a contemporary smoothie offering.”

She cites the following examples as topping her radar:

  • collagen
  • maca
  • pea protein
  • spirulina (or other blue-green algae)
  • turmeric
  • vitamin B12

“In general, plant-based protein sources such as pea and hemp, beauty-based supplements such as collagen, and adaptogens such as maca and ashwagandha are some of the larger buckets of supplements we see consumers gravitating toward,” says Kruse.

Familiar flavors

Kruse notes that although the functional ingredient trend is gaining traction, some superfood ingredients can be unfamiliar and off-putting to more mainstream consumers.

“Instead of jumping on the bandwagon and offering the ‘latest and greatest’ superfood supplement or exotic flavor, it is always important to come back to your target guest and what their needs are,” she says. “Which ingredients and flavors would feel new, contemporary and exciting to them but not be completely unrecognizable or scary?

“For this reason, new trends and flavors should always be taken into consideration and balanced with the guest’s need for a familiar, delicious and craveable beverage,” says Kruse. “Capitalizing on familiar ingredients, nostalgic flavors or iconic beverages can be a good way to ground beverages and ensure widespread appeal.”

Brand-name cookies, candies and other treats are a popular option for customization using familiar flavors and ingredients, particularly in the milkshake category.

Multiple sizes

It is also important for operators to offer multiple sizes of smoothies and shakes, says Kruse.

“In this age of customization and personalization, consumers want to be able to craft their eating experience to meet their exact needs or desires in that exact moment,” she says.

Offering multiple sizes not only addresses this consumer demand, but can also help to boost sales, says Kruse. “For example, if an operator also sells food along with beverages, offering a smaller-sized beverage can help drive attachment rates and increase average check.”

Customized milkshake and smoothie programs present an option for operators seeking to offer a greater degree of personalization in their menus, provided they do their homework first and find the right balance of offerings and service.



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