A choice of more than 40 flavored syrups, 25 candies, five fresh fruits and other seasonal ingredients awaits customers coming into Cheeburger Cheeburger for a customized shake. Many of these mix-ins also can be used to flavor iced tea, lemonade or sodas at the 56-unit Fort Myers, Fla.-based chain. “The matrix expands to well over a million flavor combinations,” says Jeffrey Jablow, Cheeburger’s director of training and menu development.
At Stacked, a four location build-your-meal concept based in Yorba Linda, Calif., customers use an iPad to create their own beverages from a similar host of ingredients. And ShakeAway Milkshake Bar, the U.K-based company now franchising in the U.S., offers 180 ingredient choices, resulting in what it claims is “millions of customized combinations.”
Clearly, customization is a rising beverage trend. There are several drivers. First, as $4-plus coffees have demonstrated, consumers are willing to pay more for specially tailored drinks and order them apart from meal occasions. Customized drinks have “broadened their appeal beyond meals,” says Joe Pawlak, senior vice president at Technomic, the Chicago research firm. “People use these beverages for snack occasions, instead of a candy bar.”
Christie Wood, account director and culinary strategist with Sterling Rice, a Boulder, Colo. research firm, cites another factor: flavor. “Consumers are more open to different ingredients,” she says. “They’re expanding their palates overall. The beverage industry is following that trajectory.”
When Coca Cola introduced its Freestyle self-serve, touch-screen soda fountain in 2009, it led the way in soft drink customization by giving diners a choice of 125 drink products and flavors. “They know that consumers are being lured away from soda [by iced teas, lemonade and other non-carbonated drinks],” says Wood. “They’re trying to keep the category interesting and engaging.”
Cheeburger’s Jablow has his own take: “Consumers are getting bored. A burger restaurant is opening on every street corner. The idea is to differentiate yourself.”
And yet, aren’t these programs logistically difficult for operators? The ordering and storage of ingredients; the training of the staff; the labor-intensive service?
Jablow credits a “well-tweaked” POS system, well-trained staff and long-standing relationships with vendors for keeping pricing agreements low. “This helped us ride the wave over the years, which makes it a profitable enterprise,” he says.
There is no apparent limit, and no end in sight. Peter Dickson, CEO of ShakeAway Worldwide Ltd., reports that it sells 2 million shakes a year, at about $5 each. One patron blended 60 ingredients into one shake. “We’ve also had customers bring in their own ingredients for us to blend,” he adds, “including a burger and fries.”