Recently, after a particularly invigorating car wash, I had a yen for a slushie. Maybe the warming weather inspired me. Perhaps the proud signage of the QuikTrip convenience store nearby activated an unconscious desire. No matter, a slushie I did get. At QuikTrip, it’s called a Freezoni, a curious, quasi-Italian aspiration that bears no relation to the dispensed product. To my palate, the slushie wasn’t good: too wet, not frozen enough, like it was already half-melted from being left too long in a vehicle cup holder.
This made me wonder: Why are slushies so different from one another? Then the thought solidified into a more existential brain freeze, as I realized that I could not even guess what might separate a Freezoni from a Slurpee, let alone an Icee from a slush. What the hell is a slushie, anyway? I had no idea, and barely any intuition.
Now I am enlightened. If you’ve ever been enthralled by one slushie and disappointed by another, it’s probably because you may be keying into qualities of which you’re not aware: carbonation, expansion, density, flavor intensity. But Big Slushie doesn’t really care whether you understand these differences, because Big Slushie doesn’t care about your needs. It exists to help convenience stores, food chains, and event providers maximize profit margins for impulse purchases, while framing those purchases to you, the slurper, as nostalgic memories of childhood delight. This is a difficult truth, and you may regret your loss of innocence in its pursuit.
“We don’t really talk about them as slushies.” That’s the first thing I learned from Tyler Parker, marketing manager for the Icee Company. Sure, normal people like you and me might talk about them, broadly, in reference to a class of icy, flavored bevvies drunk easily through a straw. (If you’re eating flavored frozen water with a spoon, or licking it from a cup, that’s an “ice.” A snow cone is an ice.) But the slushie is not, in fact, a superordinate category, not if you’re in the frozen-beverage business anyway.
Parker’s company, whose bright blue-and-red logos you’ve surely seen at fairs, movie theaters, and Target cafés, makes something called a “frozen carbonated beverage,” or FCB. Its Icee, he would proudly say, is the OG FCB. In 1958, a Kansas Dairy Queen operator named Omar Knedlik accidentally invented FCBs when his soda fountain malfunctioned. He had to serve bottles from the freezer instead, which foamed out cola when cracked open. People loved them, so Knedlik strapped an automobile air conditioner to a dispenser and turned the botch into a business. He wanted to call the product Scoldasice (as in “’s cold as ice,” not “scold-a-size,” which sounds like a 1980s fitness gimmick), but a friend wisely suggested “Icee” instead. With partners, Knedlik perfected the machine and began to sell it. Among his customers was the convenience-store chain 7-Eleven, which developed its own brand name for the FCB product, Slurpee. That’s right, a Slurpee is the same product as an Icee, but sold under a private-label trademark. Same for a product you may have seen called “Arctic Blast”—just another Icee-Slurpee, a sibling in the family.
The carbonation in Icees, Slurpees, and other FCBs provides an airy texture and a muted jolt, but also—when combined with yucca extract, a foaming agent—a surprisingly smooth texture and rich mouthfeel. Indeed, the fizz can be obscured so completely in the foam that you might not even have known that these drinks were carbonated. Bubbles also cause the dispensed product to expand, which is why your Slurpee or your Icee or your Arctic Blast inflates a bit after pouring, sometimes up and out of the domed lid to exasperate your parents.
Parker contrasts FCBs such as Icees with frozen uncarbonated beverages, or FUBs. Some of the frozen-beverage providers I spoke with articulate these names as initialisms (Eff You Bee), but Parker just says “fub,” as if to underscore its meager standing by means of phonics. When Parker does call a drink a slushie, he means to signal that it’s not the premium, carbonated kind of frozen drink, just a FUB. The Slush Puppie is a FUB; so is Dairy Queen’s Misty (formerly Mister Misty; kids these days got no respect), and the Sonic Drive-In fruity slush. A FUB can be good, of course, but it’s not really special. Anybody with some flavoring, some ice, and a blender can make a FUB. But an FCB, that requires its own equipment, supplies, and careful management.
To ensure the consistency of its branded FCBs, Parker’s team offers end-to-end service to its clients, including machines, flavor concentrates, maintenance of equipment, and marketing and sales support. But Icee’s grand designs on frozen-beverage domination span the slushiverse. In 2006, the company bought Slush Puppie, a classic FUB, then reformulated it with fruit juice and started selling the beverage in schools as “Juice 100.” When you order a frozen Coke at Burger King, that’s an Icee FCB. Same for those Mountain Dew slurp-alikes at Taco Bell. Big Slushie is real.
Or at least, that’s what the Icee Company would like me to believe. Isabel Atherton, the director of marketing at Sunny Sky Products, tells a different story. Her company makes concentrates for frozen drinks and sells them B2B. (Retailers choose which drink-making equipment to buy and how to service it.) Sunny Sky’s flavors are sometimes licensed from major food brands, such as Jarritos and Jolly Rancher, to allow for slushie lines with broad consumer recognition. Gas stations, for example, might try to sell you a Reese’s Freeze, thanks to Sunny Sky’s unholy interventions. Atherton says its flavors can be found at RaceTrac, Circle K, Wawa, QuikTrip, and many other convenience-store chains (“C-stores,” as insiders call them).
To maximize reach, Sunny Sky designs its products to work in either carbonated or uncarbonated machinery. “Most C-stores already have equipment,” Atherton told me. “What we try to do is to talk to manufacturers and test our products in their equipment.” In one machine, the crystals might be bigger, dulling the Jolly Rancher taste. Another one that produces smaller crystals might make the drink sweeter.
In other words, where Icee focuses on an end-to-end solution, Sunny Sky meets cost-conscious C-store operators where they are. A FUB machine is cheaper to buy and operate. An FCB machine is more expensive but self-contained, reducing operating complexity and increasing uptime. A drink’s “overrun”—the degree to which it expands in a carbonated-service machine—also has a direct impact on margins. More carbon dioxide means a fluffier beverage that uses less syrup and yields more profit. Icee and Slurpee may be powerful brand names, but Atherton dismisses their importance to frozen-beverage consumers. “‘Icee’ is like saying ‘Kleenex,’” she said. It’s a generic term—just another name for slushie.
She might have a point. I hadn’t even noticed QuikTrip’s Freezoni brand name until I started researching this story, even though it was emblazoned across the front of the machine that dispensed my drink. Ask a carload of unquenched souls, Do you want to get a Slurpee?, and they won’t necessarily assume you mean a stop at 7-Eleven. The buyer of a frozen drink won’t know the difference between an FCB and a FUB, and may have no expectations either way. “People don’t know the technical piece of it,” Parker admitted, and Atherton, along with every other frozen-beverage-industry insider I spoke with, agreed.
In place of knowledge about slushies, or even cogent preferences, all we have is our nostalgia. When I asked Parker to explain how his business works—what, exactly, does the Icee Company sell?—he kind of left orbit. “We exist to give people the best excuse to be a kid,” he said. “It’s a ‘kid in a cup’—an escape, an experience, something that’s going to give them a spark of joy.” I mean, it’s a slushie—err, FCB—but, you know, I get it. When I was a kid, my dad’s office sat across the street from a 7-Eleven. We’d walk over sometimes to get a Slurpee, and when I search my mind to justify why I even recall the memory, the essence of the product does glow at its center: light and expansive, full of possibility.
[Read: A definitive ranking of Dairy Queen Blizzard flavors]
In the same way, a Slurpee from a Speedway gas station (owned by 7-Eleven) or an Icee at an AMC theater serves as the bookmark for a particular sense memory. But the backroom machinations of the slushie space also undermine our recollections, sloshing them together in a vat of cherry-red confusion. A Slush Puppie or DQ Misty is looser and more liquid than an Icee or a Slurpee, for example. A Sonic slush is icier, which explains why it’s so easy to slurp out all the color from that drink and end up with a cup of crushed, unflavored ice. Even Taco Bell’s FCBs, which Parker represented to be “his” (as in, a product of the Icee Company), aren’t as fluffy as Burger King’s. QuikTrip’s Freezoni—which launched my journey to the land of slush—expands much less, making the resulting drink heavier and wetter. In Canada, yucca extract is not approved for food use, so the Slurpee that you buy in Winnipeg or Saskatoon will be thinner than the one you get in Texas or Wisconsin.
These matters are somewhat secretive within the industry. One machine salesman I spoke with speculated that C-stores carefully test and tune the properties of their machines, such as syrup concentration and overrun, to produce the best margins on the lowest cost in their particular markets: “In Tennessee, they like it really light and fluffy,” he told me. When I pressed a QuikTrip representative about the lack of foam in my Freezoni, she stopped responding to my inquiries. Similar questions spooked the equipment sales guy, too; he was scared of running afoul of his marketing department, and didn’t want to be cited by name. At some convenience stores, he told me, the slushies are heavier and wetter by design. “They have determined their drink profile,” he said ominously, like a dark ice warlock.
Any consumer good can be mysterious. Who really knows what’s in a soda, or a hamburger, or a toothpaste? Branding covers over those questions, so arbitrary choice can masquerade as preference. But we tend to think it’s easy to distinguish between categories: A cola is not a sports drink; coffee isn’t tea. Slushies violate this expectation. Imagine going into a café and saying, “Give me a cup of the hot stuff,” and then accepting whatever they pour you as if it were the specific object of your desire. That’s what it is to buy a slushie.
Like Parker, Atherton described the purchase of a slushie as a feeling in itself, “like going out for ice cream.” According to John Pahic, who distributes the Taylor Company’s frozen-beverage machines for the Midwest Equipment Company, even regional “preferences,” such as the Tennessee foam, might have less to do with people’s palate than their life history—a slush ideology of sorts. You like what you know. And given the emotional, nostalgic nature of slushies, memory and habit rule.
When it comes to slushies, our brains are frozen. To us, they’re special treats that signify a special time—a hot summer day, a movie screening, a trip to the fair. Naturally the businesses that sell slushies see them differently, as high-margin impulse buys, tweaked to maximize the flow of capital. Your frozen drink is but a mere add-on to your entry ticket or taco-supreme order or tank of gas, and your (unconscious) frozen-beverage preferences have been exploited to produce compliant purchasing. The true customer of Big Slushie isn’t you, the slurper, but the C-stores who would tempt you to slurp.
We are all mere cogs in capitalism’s machine, I suppose, but it’s still a tragedy to see those gears turning out a frozen beverage. Perhaps I never should have started looking into Slurpees and Freezonis and the like. I’d long assumed that greater knowledge makes a pleasure more intense. But to know a slushie only numbs the soul.