A few weeks ago, we lost the guy who regularly stocks our vending machines at work. The new guy lined two rows of our beverage machine with Starbucks bottled frappuccinos. Unbeknownst to him, however, he let the machine charge only 60 cents for these beverages, which usually retail for between $3 and $4. When employees caught wind of the error, they cleaned out the machine in two minutes flat.
I was sitting at a lunch table the day this incident went down. Colleagues were scrambling for change to buy as many as they could, even filling their lunch totes with them and sticking them in the fridge for another day. One friend bought a few to take home to his wife, not even knowing if she liked them.
“Hmm,” the vending guy must have thought the next time he arrived to stock the machine. “These Starbucks bottled drinks are a big hit.”
So he refilled the slots again.
That’s when I thought. “These drinks are discounted about $3. I should buy one, too.” So I put 60 cents in the machine and scored a mocha frappucino. I put it in my lunch tote to take home and transfer to my fridge.
“Hey, whose Starbucks drink is this?” my husband asked, when he opened the fridge.
“I brought it home for anyone who wants it,” I said. “The vending machine was selling them for 60 cents and they usually sell for about $3.75.”
“But you don’t even drink coffee,” he said. “And you know I don’t drink iced coffee.”
“I know, but it was a good price,” I responded. “I figured somebody would drink it … a guest, maybe?”
“So let me get this straight,” Jim said. “You don’t even have to like something to buy it, if it’s a good price? Just the word ‘sale’ is enough for you? It’s about the thrill of the deal, not whether you even like or use the product?”
“You have problems,” he said.
I do. I’ve written about this before … my problem with free stuff and my pledge to give it up … my backslide at a recent conference expo, where I came home with a suitcase full of Glade air fresheners and enough nail polish to stock a Vietnamese nail salon.
Jim’s right. I don’t drink coffee. I wake up with iced tea or diet soda. There aren’t a lot of beverages I like that are low in calories. So I mostly drink water with lemon.
So you’d think when Sonic approached me to taste test their milkshakes, I’d turn them down. I don’t drink milkshakes. I’ve never ordered one … not even at McDonald’s, as a kid.
First of all, as a Jewish girl, even though I’m not kosher, I was conditioned to never eat dairy with meat. We did not have milk with our meals growing up. We had water.
Second, I’ve always preferred to chew my calories, not drink them. I tried to make my family milkshakes years ago and you need about eight cows just to get one creamy glass full. I’d rather drink a Diet Dr. Pepper and have a cone.
But Sonic offered me a $10 gift card to their restaurant to try their shakes … and a $10 Visa to try competitor shakes. As a lover of all things free, how could I turn this down? My family drinks milkshakes. And it would be a great excuse to go to Sonic, where we love to occasionally splurge on foot long chili cheese dogs and chili cheese fries.
So even though I don’t drink milkshakes, I said yes. Because that’s what I do. I take free pens with the names of insurance companies. I take ugly canvas tote bags that say things like “Have a happy period.” Jim’s right: I have problems.
So one week ago, before driving my daughter to college, my family went out to see how Sonic stacked up against its fast food competitors … McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King. We did not taste test at sit down restaurants, like Steak ‘n Shake … only fast food joints. And this is what we found:
Sonic’s selection is so overwhelming, we couldn’t decide which shakes to order. When it comes to selection, Sonic wins, hands down. Wendy’s Frosty™ McDonald’s McCafé and Burger King’s Hand Spun Shakes come in the standard vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors. Burger King, however, has added an Oreo shake to its menu.
Sonic’s selection far surpasses its competitors, with 25 flavors, including peanut butter, pineapple, hot fudge, cookie dough, Oreo caramel, Oreo peanut butter, peanut butter fudge, salted caramel, caramel pie, chocolate hazelnut, even coconut cream pie. There were so many to choose from, we didn’t know what to order. We decided on the Oreo peanut butter, the salted caramel, the coconut cream pie and a standard vanilla. But there were only three of us, you say? Hey, we had $10. Sonic practically twisted our arms.
Sonic’s and McDonalds both win for presentation. All of the shakes came with whipped cream and a cherry. Sonic went one step further with my coconut cream pie shake, adding a sprinkling of graham cracker dust to add to the pie feeling and flavor.
Burger King’s shakes came with whipped cream only. And Wendy’s Frosty had no whipped cream or cherry. Note, also, that while every other fast food small-sized shake was 12 ounces, Wendy’s was 8.6 ounces.
To be fair, my husband, daughter and I decided to compare vanilla shakes only. And what we discovered was that, when you drink competitive shakes side-by-side, you can really taste the difference between brands. And Sonic’s, hands down, came out in first place. Trust me that I am not saying this, because Sonic paid for this venture. It was only $20, and I went into this planning to return the money, if I had nothing positive to say.
But Sonic’s shake was thick and creamy and had a rich flavor. It was sweet, without being too sweet. It tasted like real vanilla ice cream.
The next best shake was McDonalds, which had the perfect sweetness, but didn’t taste as authentic as Sonic’s. McDonald’s website says shakes are made with reduced-fat soft serve, which explains it. I have conditioned myself to be happy with reduced fat products over the years, but when taste tested against my husband’s “real” ice cream or chips, I’m always disappointed. Reduced-fat products have to stand alone. Otherwise, there’s no comparison.
Wendy’s shake tasted too sweet to me … and very artificial. My husband liked the sweetness at Wendy’s better than Sonic, but my family was in full agreement that Sonic’s shakes tasted more real.
Burger King’s shake was also creamy and had the right sweetness for me, though my husband wished it was sweeter. From my first spoonful of whipped cream, it also tasted really artificial. All three of us (on secret ballots) put Burger King’s shakes dead last.
“It tastes plasticy,” my husband noted, adding that it had a slight sourness to it, like cheesecake. My daughter described the taste as “too vanilla-y” and thought she detected a hint of banana. We all agreed that the flavor seemed really off.
Sonic’s shakes were so thick, our only complaint was it was tough to sip through a straw. We think the restaurant needs to use those smoothie straws … or serve the shake with a straw AND a spoon, like an ice cream parlor.
McDonald’s shake had a smooth consistency and was thick, but slightly thinner than Sonic’s, so it was easier to drink through a straw.
Wendy’s shakes were the thickest, and we couldn’t get it through the straw at all, without straining those same muscles you use to blow up a balloon. Fortunately, Wendy’s served our shake with a spoon and a straw. I ended up using a spoon.
Burger King’s shake was thinner than the competitors, so you could sip it through the straw, but it was too thin. My teenager described it as creamy and light, but “soupy.” And we all agreed that , while it was smooth, it was too smooth.
“It’s a fake smooth,” my husband said, “like you’re ingesting silicone.”
So How Did Sonic Rank?
This was not even a contest. Sonic’s shakes tasted the most like real ice cream. That’s because they ARE made with real ice cream. They’re thick and creamy and boast rich flavors – like milkshakes you’d get in an ice cream shop.
McDonald’s was the next best. The shakes are made with reduced-fat vanilla with vanilla shake syrup, so the flavor wasn’t as rich when you taste test it against Sonic.
In my opinion, Wendy’s and Burger King shakes are to milkshakes what “orange drink” is to orange juice … not even close. Neither were worth the calories, in my book. And they both tasted synthetic.
After sampling Sonic’s vanilla shake, my daughter and I handed it off to my husband (not the most daring eater in the world). We then turned to our more exotic shakes. We loved our first few sips of the salted caramel, but after a few sips, we agreed it was too sweet. This shake is more suited to sharing, kind of like a dense chocolate torte … it becomes too much after a while.
We both loved the Oreo peanut butter shake. It was creamy with a rich chocolate-peanut butter flavor, but not overly sweet. My daughter claimed that one, leaving me with the coconut cream pie.
I took one sip and it did taste exactly like pie ― my favorite pie of all time! It was thick and well blended, with tiny flakes of coconut, giving it a slightly courser texture than the vanilla shake. I enjoyed the texture, because it made it feel less like a drink and more like ice cream. It was the first milkshake I’d ever had in my life, and I decided to postpone my diet one more day … because it was that good!