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The Charlotte Observer

June 20, 2008

Hand-spun, and in a hurry

Fast-food chains are now offering a new, nostalgic brand of milkshakes.

By Jen Aronoff

A woman pulls into the drive-through at the South End Chick-fil-A at 11:20 a.m. Thursday, toward the end of the post-breakfast, pre-lunch lull. Inside, her order pops up on a screen.

It's a cookies and cream milkshake. But as Chick-fil-A's marketing and branding campaigns convey, it's not just any milkshake – it's a hand-spun milkshake. Which means that it's more than a milkshake, it's a message. Specifically: We may be fast food, but we're a cut above the norm.

Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A introduced a line of shakes it calls “hand-spun” in mid-2006. Last month, Wendy's joined in with its own, made by blending traditional Frosty dessert with flavored sauces. “Hand-spun is waaaay better,” the Columbus, Ohio-based chain's promotional materials proclaim.

In times marked by war and economic distress, marketers tend to appeal to consumers' sense of nostalgia and comfort, and the recent appearance of hand-spun shakes is an example of that, said Steve Manning, managing director of Igor, a San Francisco-based naming and branding firm.

“They're trying to move away from the idea of fast food … make it less clinical and warm it up,” said Manning, who does not work with Wendy's or Chick-fil-A. “They're also trying to convey some sort of difference, whether it's real or not, between their shakes and, say, McDonald's shakes.”

At the most basic level, “hand-spun” is just what it sounds like: Each time someone orders a shake at Chick-fil-A or Wendy's, the treat doesn't just emerge from a machine – an employee in the restaurant mixes at least part of it by spinning ingredients with a blender. Both restaurant chains chose their words deliberately.

“We really wanted to (show) through the name that it's handmade, in essence,” Chick-fil-A spokesman Mark Baldwin said. “We literally take you back to the '50s, back to that time period when that's how shakes were made.”

Hand-spun and its variants have been used through time to describe fabrics, particularly wools and yarns. But that changed Jan. 26, 2006, when Chick-fil-A issued a news release announcing its sales results – and plans to offer “four flavors of hand-spun milkshakes.”

Wendy's spokesman Bob Bertini notes that Chick-fil-A's use of “hand-spun” was not a factor in Wendy's decision to use it.

“For us, our whole advertising campaign is that it's way better than fast food,” he said.

“Hand-spun” helps situate the chains' food in the increasingly popular middle ground between handmade and machine-made products – prepared, but customized, said Deepak Sirdeshmukh, an assistant professor of marketing at N.C. State University.

Meanwhile, back at the South End Chick-fil-A, store owner John Tsumas gets to work on that cookies and cream shake. He hits a button on a boxy metal machine that dispenses “milkshake base” of milk, butterfat and sugar, filling about one-third of a 20 oz. styrofoam cup.

He adds Oreo crumbles and vanilla Ice Dream soft serve, then sticks the cup into one of the two milkshake blenders attached to the Ice Dream machine. As he moves the cup up, down and side to side, the layers morph into a creamy black-and-white specked liquid.

After topping the shake with whipped cream and a cherry, Tsumas hands it to order taker Joel Smith, who in turn passes it to a red-haired woman in her car. The entire process takes about 30 seconds.

The South End store sells about 100 of the cool concoctions a day, Tsumas said, and they've proven popular from breakfast 'til close.

He said they're also a good way to attract customers looking for a snack during off-peak hours, a growth area that a range of fast-food chains are targeting with shakes and other items.

For Wendy's, the shakes offer another benefit: They give the chain a frozen dessert customers can drink with a straw, unlike the still-available original Frosty.

The risk of brain freeze, however, remains very much the same.