Prabhakaran R—a national level gold medalist in mixed martial artists—drinks milkshakes four times a week at the Shree Ganesha juice stand in Indiranagar, Bengaluru. “They’re healthy because they have both fruits and milk,” said the 23-year old, “plus this is pocket friendly.” A milkshake at Ganesha costs Rs. 50-60—but I was there to find out why the city is frothing over with trendy milkshake spots, where a glass of the cold stuff runs anywhere from Rs. 100 to Rs. 350.
In a city like Bengaluru, which has long had a thriving milkshake stall culture, branded milkshake companies are expanding like crazy, turning an ordinary roadside beverage into an aspirational one, an indulgence. With fancier forms, like thickshakes, cake jars, and freakshakes on offer, Prabhakaran and his fellow citizens are spoiled for choice.
Prabhakaran tried one of these chains, the Delhi-based Keventers, once. He found their shakes “good to taste, but not actually healthy. Here we can ask them to increase milk or fruit content but there we can’t.”
Still, most people trace the hipster milkshake explosion in Indian metros to 2015, when Keventers relaunched its 93-year-old brand after a 45-year hiatus. Keventers now has 280 outlets across 40 Indian cities, and are currently opening 20 outlets a month. Copycats have sprung up across the country, adopting Keventers’ signature glass milk bottle; quirky logos and interiors, mostly in pop colours; and the aesthetic of exposed brick walls, antique bulbs and external pipes.
“We started it all,” said Keventers CEO Sohrab Sitaram. “Everybody has copied us blatantly. We take pride in saying that we are the guys who changed the way people look at milkshakes.”
The ThickShake Factory launched in 2013 and has 80 outlets, mainly in South India (but also one in California ). It plans to expand to 150 outlets across India in the next six months. Frozen Bottle, which opened in May 2017, has 42 outlets in India and plans to open 50 more by the end of this year. Its total revenue in the first year was Rs. 13.5 crores. The Milkshake Theory opened this February with six outlets and 17 more in the pipes, just in Bengaluru. They plan to open up to 175 outlets in the next three years pan-India.
When Keventers launched its first store in southern India in 2016, people flocked to the Indiranagar, Bengaluru location to check-in on Facebook, post pictures on Instagram, and take the bottles home. In some cases, they didn’t even drink the shakes: a young marketing professional told me she “scavenged through the rubbish, took four bottles home, and potted plants in them.”
Niveaditta John, 25, repurposed some bottles as fairy-light filled lamps, and also used 50 of them as a stand for an upcycled centre table. Her younger sister Nikitha is creating a vertical garden with what’s left.
Little wonder that Sri Hari, one of the partners at Bengaluru-based Frozen Bottle, told me that he based his store interiors on a Pinterest mood board. And The Milkshake Theory, which launched this February, hired Chennai’s Woah Mama creative agency to up the aesthetic appeal. Anek Ahuja, co-founder of Woah Mama, said the idea was to keep the brand simple and direct to attract walk-in crowds. “Milkshakes are pop. We wanted the brand to be poppy just like Archies Comics.”
What’s interesting is that before milkshakes trickled down to places like Shree Ganesha, they were probably just as hip in India as they are now becoming all over again. When Indians first started drinking shakes, Archie Comics were likely one of the cultural reference points for their popularity.
Archaeologist and food critic Kurush F. Dalal pointed out that “If you look at any high school or young adult American movies before the ’50s, there would always be a milkshake. In India, dates were done over tea or coffee.” The reason for this, Dalal said, was that “India was a milk deficit country. We had to stand in line to buy milk. Energee was the first milk drink in Western India. There were other players too like Mother Dairy in East India and Vijaya in Southern India.”
It was only after the success of Operation Flood, in the 1970s, that “there was enough milk to distribute to the urban public,” said Dalal. “Today we are supposedly not just milk sufficient but a milk surplus country,” he added.
Dalal told me milkshakes have become more popular in the last 15 years, “since the onslaught on aerated beverages. Milk has become healthy again.” Ironically, it is the branded shakes—which always include ice cream—that are actually less healthy.
Milkshake is basically just ice cream, milk, and fruit syrup, but in the branded shake industry, every edge counts with the competition so thick—not just in Bengaluru, but in Mumbai, Delhi and elsewhere. Indians are so enamored of milkshakes that celebrities Priyanka Chopra and Mallika Sherawat have even been invited to launch their own signature concoctions abroad.
Unlike local milkshake shops, such as Shree Ganesha Juice Centre, none of these chains use fresh fruit. Sitaram told me Keventers produces its own milk in Delhi, and in other states uses Mother Dairy milk with a modified fat content. They make their own fruit crushers but also use brands like Monin for flavour. The Milkshake Theory uses Nandini milk, Monin syrup, and locally procured ice cream; while the ThickShake Factory produces its own 100 percent dairy ice cream.
At Green G Juice Bar, a local parlour opposite a Frozen Bottle store, owner Kapil told me, “The taste is constant in branded milkshakes—people like that. But if you take a fresh natural fruit, sometimes it’s sweet and sometimes a little sour. We haven’t lost customers because our milkshakes are fresh and healthy.”
Clearly, branded chains and local stalls cater to different categories of drinkers. Rinku Chiranewala, a homemaker who visits Keventers once a week, told me, “We can’t trust local milkshakes because of the milk—and what if the fruits are cut and kept?”
Both Sitaram and Hari told me the sanitised look-and-feel of their products is important. “Unbranded milkshake shops have fruit waste, flies, and rats. I don’t want to spoil the neat aesthetics,” said Hari.
Are they really that different though? Dalal thinks not. “Keventers happened to reinvent themselves at the right time and in the right place. They are a complete con job. You are paying four times the money of what it costs to produce a milkshake, but they have you hooked on to it,” he said. “I have massive respect for them," he added. "They have proved that the entire country is full of gullible idiots.”