Shake It Up, Baby!

Get the scoop on quality hand-dipped ice cream and customized shakes.

Shake It Up, Baby!

April 2024   minute read

By: Pat Pape

In 1940, when Carl Lindner Sr. opened the first United Dairy Farmers store in Cincinnati, his goal was to sell milk from local dairies directly to consumers, saving them the cost of home delivery. At the time, Lindner could not have imagined that his small outlet would morph into 174 retail units across Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, selling dairy products—including four million shakes and malts a year—along with fresh foods, groceries and fuel.

A lot has changed in 84 years, and a lot hasn’t, according to Mark Wilson, corporate head of human resources for United Dairy Farmers. Today, the company produces its proprietary ice cream for hand-dipped shakes, malts, cones and sundaes using the same recipes that have been handed down for four generations.

“The process of making our ice cream and the quality of ingredients has stayed paramount throughout our history,” Wilson said. “For example, we use real Oreo cookies in our cookies-and-cream ice cream. Some other producers may take shortcuts, such as using a private-label, Oreo-like cookie in theirs. And some put so much air in their product that they can’t call it ‘ice cream.’ They must label it a ‘frozen treat’ based on FDA regulations. This lessens the quality, not to mention the flavor profile.”

Sweeten the Menu

The appeal of ice cream and personalized shakes is not lost on other c-store leaders.

Rutter’s, based in York, Pennsylvania, began as a family dairy with 20 milk cows in 1921. Today, it has 85 convenience stores across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland. The stores introduced made-to-order shakes in 2019 and added the “Xtreme” shake in 2022.

“Offering customers the ability to create their own shakes allows them to customize their dining experience,” said Chad White, food service category manager for Rutter’s. “We offer a foundation of classic flavors, including chocolate, vanilla and the ever-popular peanut butter. These base flavors serve as the canvas for creating delightful shakes that cater to traditional tastes.”

Using Blendtec commercial blenders, Rutter’s staffers add premium treats to basic shakes per each customer’s request. Or customers can choose an Xtreme shake with a full-size, name-brand candy bar mixed in. “Our most popular option is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Xtreme Shake,” White said.

“People talk about eating healthy, but ice cream is a treat.”

This is no surprise to the folks at The Hershey Company. “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup emerges as a predominant flavor pairing across diverse demographic segments, including Gen Z, Hispanic, Asian and Black consumers,” said Al Adams, senior manager, foodservice marketing for Hershey, sharing research from Datassential.

Baltimore-based High’s was born in 1928 as a single ice cream parlor in Richmond, Virginia. Today, High’s has 60 locations selling its own branded ice cream and serving hand-dipped treats and shakes.

“We partner with a third-party manufacturer to produce ice cream to our exact specifications,” said Sherryn Diamond, director of foodservice at High’s. “Customers seek more than just a frozen treat. They desire inclusions, natural ingredients and indulgence. We cater to these preferences by offering a variety of toppings and emphasizing the portability of our packaging for on-the-go enjoyment.”

Curby’s Express Markets in Lubbock, Texas, introduced customized milk shakes more than a year ago.

“We have a soft-serve ice cream machine and use that ice cream to make our shakes,” said Tony Sparks, head of customer wow for Curby’s. “When the customer gets the shake, it’s immediately drinkable.”

The Curby’s team dreamed up the soft-serve shake and added it to the stores’ already robust beverage menu. “We just tried it, and it worked,” Sparks said. “It’s really a dessert item … more of a luxury than a coffee or an energy drink.”

Scream for Ice Cream

The average American consumes about 20 pounds, or four gallons, of ice cream a year, reports the International Dairy Foods Association. According to Mintel, 51% of consumers enjoy enhancing their frozen treats with cookies, candy and other toppings.

“There is definitely seasonality,” said Paula Finnen, category manager for United Dairy Farmers. “The highest sales are in the summer months when kids are out of school, with Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings having the highest sales.”

But don’t neglect the ice cream consumer during colder weather. “Packaged ice cream sales of certain products are strong during the winter months,” said Wilson. “We’ve found that our guests simply switch to enjoying ice cream in the warmth of their home versus going out for a treat. We have winter-themed flavors like Homemade brand Santa’s Cookie and Peppermint Stick.”

“It’s not surprising that shake sales maintain a relatively consistent pace throughout the year, given their widespread appeal,” said White of Rutter’s, which features seasonal flavors like eggnog and mint chip. “Our LTO offerings add a touch of freshness and anticipation to our menu, allowing customers to savor the essence of each season in a delicious shake. The noticeable bump in sales over the summer is a trend that aligns with the season’s characteristics.”

In addition to serving cones and shakes, High’s sells its own branded ice cream.

Make Shakes

United Dairy Farmers, Rutter’s and High’s began their lives as dairy product providers and grew into convenience stores. Curby’s Express Market started as a c-store during the pandemic and added customized shakes to enhance a growing beverage program.

Would a shake program be right for your store? Although United Dairy Farmers has a foodservice program and fresh bakery offerings, “we have that dairy culture built in, and that makes us a bit different from other c-store chains out there,” said Wilson. He believes a small-scale shake program could work for c-store retailers, “but you must think holistically. Think about your supply chain, warehousing, maintenance and your desired customer experience,” he said.

Not long ago, United Dairy Farmers acquired several stores in good locations. “However, we had to invest significant capital to add the equipment necessary to those stores to enable them to sell ice cream the UDF way,” he said. “Probably the biggest expense is the expanded freezer area, which we call a hardening room, both in the back of the store and in the customer-facing areas.”

Don’t neglect the ice cream consumer during colder weather.

The retailer’s outlets, some as large as 6,000 square feet, offer seating so that customers can enjoy ice cream on site. The company also has the necessary logistic and warehouse support to make and package its own ice cream—it owns more than 400,000 square feet of warehouse space.

“The majority is cold storage, with people working in an environment that is 20 degrees below zero,” Wilson said. “If you don’t have the capacity, a network or third-party partners to create the right logistic solutions, it can be very challenging.”

According to Diamond, an in-store ice cream program similar to High’s does not need the physical space that other foodservice efforts may require. “Essential equipment—like a dip case, dip well and scoops—ensures a streamlined and efficient service,” she said. “The key is to give the ice cream offer a home that adds a touch of theater, making the experience fun and enjoyable for customers.”

Successfully selling hand-dipped ice cream requires a different approach to staffing. “You still have the convenience-store guests who want to run in and get something fast,” said Fannin. “But hand-dipping takes time. It’s personalized and customized, especially in the summer when stores are packed with guests looking for that after-dinner snack or shake.”

And don’t forget those mandatory sauces, nuts and candies, which must be fresh and look pristine. “In a small store setting, retailers can capitalize on this demand by curating a well-thought-out selection of ice cream products with branded inclusions or providing customizable options for customers to add their preferred mix-ins,” said Adams.

While implementing a shake program may pose challenges in terms of space and equipment, “the potential sales and customer satisfaction benefits can outweigh these considerations,” said White. “The appeal of shakes spans across various age groups, making them a timeless, universally loved treat. The key lies in offering a range of options that cater to different preferences and age groups.”

No Space for Shakes?

Not every convenience store has the necessary space or the staff to serve hand-dipped ice cream or made-to-order shakes. But every store with a cooler can display ice cream, and there are many opportunities to make that offering special.

Private-label ice cream has been well-received by American consumers. In 2022, Ben & Jerry’s, the nation’s leading ice cream brand, sold 182 million units, according to Statista, while all private-label ice cream brands combined sold 410 million units. Since 2015, 7-Eleven has sold ice cream pints under the 7-Select brand, which has been a win for the company.

“Our private-label products are popular with customers for the value they offer, with a winning combination of high quality and affordability,” said Allie Castillo, senior product development manager for 7-Eleven. “And customers love 7-Select ice cream because it offers convenience without compromising on quality, whether they are craving a treat or bringing dessert to a social gathering.”

“The key is to give the ice cream offer a home that adds a touch of theater.”

Along with traditional flavors, a 7-Eleven freezer features diverse choices ranging from banana cream pie and caramel butter pecan to strawberry banana shortcake. This summer, birthday cake ice cream will be available for a limited time.

“We strive to offer options for all tastes and preferences,” said Castillo. “If someone is looking for a treat, we have 7-Select ice cream or fresh baked cookies. Or if someone is looking for better-for-you snacks, we offer fresh fruits, yogurt parfaits and cold-pressed juices.”

Over the past few decades, surveys have indicated that consumers want better-for-you foods and treats. But what they say they want is not always what they order.

“Better for you is important, and United Dairy Farmers has offered a low-fat ice cream and shakes for years,” said Finnen. “We’ve tried Greek yogurt and tangy yogurt and no sugar added. And then there’s keto ice cream. We’ve looked at it but not produced it. People talk about eating healthy, but ice cream is a treat. And when people want a treat, they’re not going to look at the calories.”

Pat Pape

Pat Pape

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. See more of her articles at

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