CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — As temperatures soar in northeast Ohio, many of us are turning to a smooth, creamy milkshake to cool off. Today – June 20 – is the perfect day to do that too. This is National Vanilla Milkshake Day.
You can trace the history of the modern day milkshake return to Walgreen’s Soda fountain cretin Ivan Coulson, who in 1922 added “generous” scoops of ice cream to the drugstore malted milk drink to give it a thicker consistency and richer flavor.
To Tommy’s on Coventry — heralded for their thick, rich shakes over the past 50 years — Stephanie Gruber says vanilla shakes have always been one of their biggest sellers, surpassed only by traditional chocolate.
Tom Fello began his restaurant career as a soda jerk at age 14 at a local drug store. He opened Tommy’s in 1972 – and gained national attention the same year when Rolling Stone magazine voted their shakes the “best milkshake east of the Mississippi.” The recipe has remained the same ever since.
“Dad started the restaurant with a process, and to this day we still make our milkshakes the same way he did back then,” said Gruber, daughter of Tommy, who took over more the daily operations of the restaurant. “All ingredients are locally sourced – stone ice creamand milk from Hartzler Dairy in Wooster.
“The quality of our ingredients makes for the best milkshakes and it’s worth it for us to spend the money it takes to make a really good milkshake,” Gruber said. “Our customers pay a somewhat reasonable price for our shakes and they expect quality ingredients. But more importantly, they don’t want us to change anything, so we’re keeping things the way they’ve always been.
Gruber estimates that milkshake sales account for about 65% of the restaurant’s business each week. If you only look at beverage sales, that percentage skyrockets to 85%.
Shake sales are so high that Tommy had to have a custom milkshake spinner rack made to hold the nine shakers they need to keep up with demand.
What makes Tommy’s shakes so irresistible?
“It’s a science,” Gruber said, evenly.
“We use perfect amounts of each ingredient – always the same amount of milk and the same amount of ice cream. And then we have to be really responsible for the other ingredients, because those extra ingredients can make the shakes too thin. Then it’s just a matter of getting it to spin perfectly,” she explained.
“It’s all about the faucet”
Then there is the matter of getting the perfect casting.
The shakes are delivered to the table in the same metal glass in which they are made. Servers put on a show from perfectly filling the fountain glass with a carefully poured shake by tapping the metal mixer cup on the side of the glass, before leaving behind some shake – which amounts to a second serving – on the table in its original metal container.
Unfortunately, customers don’t seem to understand the connection between tap and pour.
When it comes time to refill their glass, Gruber estimates that around 80% of Tommy’s customers throw some of the shake on the table.
“Our shakes are so thick that sitting in this metal container for any length of time causes a kind of solid lump to form in the center of the shake. Then “do the tap” while they pour to put everything in the glass.
“It’s okay, we’re patient with spills and always make sure we have plenty of towels available,” Gruber said. “But who wants to miss one of the jerks?”