Despite all the mysteries of childhood, there was one thing I knew for certain: When September 2nd came around, I would celebrate my birthday with a cake made of chocolate and vanilla ice cream and crumbled Oreo cookie bits. I'll soon be 29 years old, and that special treat now seems boring. Every day can be your birthday at Cold Stone Creamery, the 1,300-store chain of ice cream shops, with a bowl of Cold Stone's Birthday Cake Remix, a mixture of cake batter ice cream, rainbow sprinkles, brownie and fudge. Or I can make my own concoction, made to my specifications on a 16-degree granite stone (hence the company name) with whatever "mix in" I want added with an arthritis-inducing kneading action.
When the demand for those super-premium flavors such as Mud Pie Mojo (coffee ice cream, Oreos, peanut butter, roasted almonds, fudge, and whipped topping) had lines snaking out the door, founders Donald and Susan Sutherland took a cue from their daughter and started what has become the "entertainment factor"—a song, and in some cases, a dance, performed by Cold Stone crewmembers while you wait. After someone leaves a tip, the cashier yells out, "Hey guys! We got a tip!" The crew then replies, "All right!" and we're treated to a Cold Stone-ified version of a classic song like this takeoff of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough":
"Ain't no ice cream large enough
Ain't no stone that's long enough
Ain't no mix in sweet enough
To keep me from getting a Cold Stone."
"When most people are going to get ice cream, they're going out to have fun," says Kevin Myers, Cold Stone's VP of Marketing. "This is their 10-minute vacation." Songs differ depending on where you are, but all of the crewmembers (many of them teenagers) are auditioned to demonstrate their talent and enthusiasm. "The audition process takes on the personality of the community," says Mr. Myers. "What is special about the group in Miami, where there may be a salsa move, is different than those in Ohio where they're just rampant about Ohio State football."
In my five trips to various Cold Stone outlets in New York City, though, my experience hewed more closely to the personality one might stereotype about New Yorkers more than Cold Stone execs, in Scottsdale, Arizona, would have liked. Only once did I get the full experience. In one quiet downtown location near New York University this summer, the crewmembers gave a half-hearted rendition that would've gotten them booted off any stage. Kevin Donnellen, the company's director of public relations, acknowledges that the company's franchise system can pose a challenge to consistency. As the chain plans to open another 250 to 300 Cold Stones per year for the next three to five years, it expects to make adjustments. "Reading the customers is becoming more important," says Mr. Donnellen. They've even gotten feedback from customers who don't want a song. Don't want a song? That's like a birthday without ice cream cake.
To expect a serenade with your sundae may lose sight of the big picture. I'm checking out the Cold Stone in Forest Hills, New York, the most "suburban" of the chain's New York locations in search of that Disney cast member-style performance. I walk in, no greeting. I stand in line, no singing. I plop down in a chair to sulk with my Strawberry Shortcake Serenade. But what's to mope about when you have a pile of ice cream, yellow cake, strawberries and whipped cream in front of you? The ice cream is delicious and made fresh on the premises. No matter how many people are in line, the crew is attentive, listening to what the customers want, explaining the countless options, making alterations to the recipes. There appears to be no limit to the number of ice cream samples you can try. Your mix master will wait patiently while you decide whether you want a waffle bowl. When I went to the Times Square shop, the busiest in the chain according to Cold Stone execs, and the crewmember added more fudge than I'd asked for, he tossed the whole thing and started again. The final concoction presented to you is a bowl full of custom-made joy. "Entertainment factor" aside, Cold Stone Creamery makes a good dish of ice cream the way I want it. That's all the experience I need.