(Frozen) Mistakes Were Made

Exploring the accidental invention of the ICEE, the frozen beverage that changed American summers forever.

Today in Tedium: In my experience, July always feels like one of the longest months of the summer. It’s either raining or unbearably hot, and some days it seems like my allergies are working overtime. Fireworks displays and drinking some Kool-Aid might supply a welcome distraction, but the heat is just too intense at times. 2020, in particular, was one of the hottest summers on record. Kicking back by the pool or cranking up the AC may provide temporary respite from the blazing sun, but sometimes you need a refreshing ice-cold treat to get you through a hot summer’s day. A generous helping of sugar doesn’t hurt. We’re not talking about sno cones or ice cream sandwiches. In today’s Tedium, we’re going to beat the summer heat with one of America’s favorite frozen treats: the ICEE. — David @ Tedium

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150

The number of flavors ICEE has produced over the years. Per ICEE’s official FAQ, there are over 150 unique flavors of the icy, carbonated beverage. But here’s the kicker: there are only around 30 or so flavor options available at any given time. The reason for this isn’t clear, but it doesn’t stop the company from selling over 500 million drinks per year—or coming up with unique flavors

ICEE neon sign

(Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

How one man turned a problem into a multi-million dollar success

The story of ICEE begins—as these things often do—with a mechanical breakdown and an entrepreneur named Omar Knedlik.

Knedlik was born and raised in Kansas. He grew up the son of poor farmers and loved to tinker around with different machines. After serving in the Second World War, returned to his home to start his own business venture. He ran an ice cream parlor for a while, then tried his hand at running hotels. Eventually, he bought and ran the Dairy Queen where he inadvertently invented the precursor to the ICEE.

In 1958, the soda fountain of a Dairy Queen in Coffeyville, KS decided to stop working. At this Kansas-based Dairy Queen, proprietor Omar Knedlik needed to think fast. He wasn’t about to let something as insignificant as broken equipment get into the way of running his business.

So he did what any of us would do in this situation: he improvised. Knedlik placed bottles of soda into his freezer and sold them from there. But while sitting in the freezer, the carbonated beverages underwent some chemical changes. The resulting drink was a delicious soda with a nice, slushy, partially frozen consistency.

Of course, that’s just one version of the story. Another version posits that Knedlik didn’t have a soda fountain in the first place and always sold his sodas partially frozen. Yet another tells us that Knedlik often ran out of cold soda bottles during rushes and threw them in the freezer for a rapid chill.

Either way, his customers went crazy for it--with some even requesting it as a special order--and a light bulb went off over Knedlik’s head. If his Kansas-based clientele loved this drink, then there must be a wider market for it.

But getting there required some ingenuity, plenty of science, and a whole lot of luck.

1966

The year 7-Eleven made a deal with ICEE to sell their product. There were only two conditions: they had to use a different name and could only sell it in the USA. Decoding the difference between an ICEE and a Slurpee is pretty easy: they’re the exact same thing. Slurpee just happens to be 7-Eleven’s proprietary brand for the slushie beverage. But before it became a national sensation, underwent a name change based on the sound it makes when you slurp it, had its own theme song, was parodied on The Simpsons, and became forever associated with slushies, the machine that makes it … er … had to be made first.

ICEE machine

(Al Pavangkanan/Flickr)

The ICEE machine was born out of a DIY project

From its inauspicious origins at a Kansas Dairy Queen location to its modern-day status as a Movie Theatre staple, the ICEE machine is kind of an amazing device.

After the initial interest in his refreshing product grew into full-fledged requests for rhe stuff, Knedlik decided to put some effort into crafting a machine that could produce the slushie drink on demand.

Knedlik tapped into the power of DIY design. He put together a prototype slushie machine out of an old ice cream machine and a car’s air conditioning unit. Yup; you read that right: the early version of Knedlik’s machine used spare car parts to make it tick. Cool.

How else was he going to combine freezing water, carbon dioxide, and flavoring?

Knedlik explained how his machine worked to the Coffeyville newspaper, saying it would use “A pre-mix of most any flavor is placed inside the machine.” Then the mix was placed under a certain degree of pressure.

Per Knedlik, “Any liquid increases in density when pressurized. Release of the pressure causes it to freeze.” The machine managed to serve his drinks at a frosty 28 degrees per cup. Knedlik marketed it as the “coldest drink in town” with flavors like root beer and cola.

He wanted to give his drink a punchy name. He called it “Fizzies” until Kellogg’s sent him a cease and desist order for using the name. Later, he enlisted the help of a friend, Ruth Taylor, who devised the name and generated the idea of the iconic logo, although the bear logo itself came from the Norsworthy-Mercer agency who developed it further. . Taylor initially drew the logo as a baby bear cub sipping a cold beverage, but as time passed, he morphed into the cool, fun-loving bear he is today.

This early version of what would become the ICEE machine needed some work. To refine the idea, Knedlik enlisted the aid of Dallas-based John E. Mitchell Company to help him get his dream off the ground.

“Our ICEE soft drink operation came alive all of a sudden this spring after we’d almost given up on it. And now we think the coldest drink in town could become the hottest product on our line.”

— Don F. Mitchell, then vice president of the John E. Mitchell Company, telling a Dallas newspaper about the company’s nascent success with their fancy slushie machines. The machines weren’t selling well--likely due to their $3000 price point--until all of a sudden, they were in such high demand, the company found themselves with a backorder of over 2,000 machines.

Icee Sign

(robert burakiewicz/Flickr)

The ICEE is a marvel of modern soda tech

After teaming up with the John E. Mitchell Company to work on the machine’s design, the machine went through a number of changes before making its debut in 1960. The company worked on the project, tweaking its design, making it smaller, and generally improving it over the next five years.

The machines didn’t sell well at first. They were too big and expensive. Business was slow until the smaller machines made it easier to transport, install, and ultimately sell ICEEs. When the design was finalized, the Mitchell Company patented it. The patent outlines the inner workings of the machine, but more importantly, describes the dreaded defrost cycle—known to the rest of us “sorry, this flavor is temporarily unavailable”—and the necessity for designing the machine with this function built in. From the patent:

It has been found that even with the viscosity, temperature, and pressure controls heretofore referred to, over a period of time ice crystals in the liquid ingredients in the chamber begin to increase in size. Eventually, usually after several hours, their size becomes so great that they affect the operation of the machine or a poor quality drink is produced. At this point, it is necessary to place the machine in a defrost mode for several minutes to melt the ice crystals.

While the final version of the machine was the culmination of combined efforts, the original spark of ingenuity—and Knedlik’s talent for tinkering and thinking ahead, along with his dedication to improving beverage dispensing technology—still shines through.

Knedlik’s son, Ron, discussed his father’s ingenuity with the News & Record during the drink’s 40th anniversary:

He had a way of telling when things were going to be good ideas and when they weren’t. It’s kind of remarkable. It took a huge sacrifice for my mom and dad to do this. We weren’t very wealthy at all. But he decided that was something he needed to do. He was tenacious.”

Knedlik already had a few other patents related to the ICEE under his belt, so taking the ICEE machine idea to the next level was a natural progression of his innate talent.

7 Eleven Free Slurpee

Freel Slurpee Day is a monument to the ICEE’s importance to 7-Eleven under the Slurpee brand name. (ddoubleu/Flickr)

Knedlik retired in 1967, but the ICEE legacy was just getting started. The drink found its way into numerous locations, became a big hit for 7-Eleven under its Slurpee pseudonym. In 1988, J & J Snack Foods acquired the company and the rest is history.

It’s not uncommon to find an ICEE machine at the gas station, your local Target, or a movie theater these days. They’re practically ubiquitous. And it may be just me, but getting an ICEE at the movies was always one of the better parts of the experience. They seem to taste better and always have peak carbonation, not to mention the occasional special flavors. Maybe it’s the extended service contracts or the fact that they’re actually cleaned with some kind of frequency. Regardless, ICEEs are delicious, even if they’re not the healthiest thing to drink with a salty snack!

24g

The amount of sugar, in grams, in a single 12-ounce serving of one ICEE’s most popular flavor, cherry. On top of that, the sugary beverage contains 5 mg of sodium and potassium in that size and clocks in at approximately 95 calories. Since most of us probably go larger than that—who wants 12 ounces, when you can get 32 or 44?—both the sugar and calorie counts can get pretty high. Men’s Health has the frosty beverage positioned at number 15 on its list of “The Worst Drinks on the Planet,” going so far as to call out the blue raspberry flavor as a particularly egregious example sandwiched between Pina Coladas and root beer floats.

Slurpee

(Adam Kuban/Flickr)

The Science Behind An ICEE/Slurpee Flavor

The science behind slushies is fascinating in its own right. What makes the ICEE (or slushie) special is its properties. The frozen treats are examples of a supercooled liquid—chilling a liquid to below its freezing point without it becoming solid. The carbon dioxide, water, and syrup chill inside of a pressurized barrel. It churns—you’ve undoubtedly seen this if you’ve stood in line for a while at a concession stand equipped with an ICEE machine—to scrape any ice away from the sides of the barrel. The sugar in the mix prevents it from freezing into a solid mass.

There’s a precise science to creating ICEE/Slurpee flavors, too. It all comes down to the challenges inherent in developing new flavors that are both drinkable and maintain the frozen state of the beverage. Per Dr. Pepper Snapple (DPS) Group Research & Development Center senior vice president of research and development David Thomas, new flavors are quite challenging to develop. As he told C-Store Decisions in 2010:

The target flavor has to burst in your mouth and be more intense to meet the taste expectations of Slurpee customers. That presents an even greater challenge because carbonated soft drinks are some of the most unforgiving products when working with flavors. Add to that the frozen element and you have an even greater challenge. To replicate a carbonated beverage, the flavor concentrate has to be many times stronger for the frozen version.

It can become even more nuanced than that. The team has to decide precisely what flavor profile to use for the new flavor (sweet, tart, juicy, etc.) and how to make it a color that will appeal to consumers. After that, it’s a matter of scaling up the production to create the concentrate from which the syrup is derived.

If you’re looking to try new flavors for yourself—and/or if the machine at your local bodega/theatre/big box store isn’t working—you can always try your hand at making a homemade ICEE. But that’s a story for another time.

“If you are in an avalanche, it’s sort of like you’re swimming around in snow. As soon as the avalanche stops, it becomes very rigid, very cement-like.”

— Scott Rankin, a food scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explaining how an ICEE resembles an avalanche in a 2016 article with Smithsonian magazine. For anyone who’s ever enjoyed one, that sounds about right.

This may seem like a syrupy conclusion, but as we all grow older, eternally marching toward the inevitably of a changing world, at least we can all take a small bit of comfort in the fact that ICEE doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. They’re even exploring branching out into more quick service or restaurant locations.

They always seem to be experimenting with unique flavors, like a bizarre Addams Family tie-in from 2019. Or Peach Tea. But some of the flavors really do work. I particularly enjoyed the coffee one from a few years ago and this year’s lemonade was one of the best I’ve ever had. But some of them miss the mark, like the buttered popcorn flavor or white chocolate. No thanks.

For something that had unceremonious beginnings, the ICEE has certainly had an interesting run. Wherever there’s a hot day and someone needs a sugary drink, ICEE is sure to be there in some form—whether it’s as a Slurpee, Slushie, ICEE, Slush Puppy, or some reasonable facsimile thereof. As we move into the future and the machine continues to evolve (there are Freestyle touchscreen versions now), it’ll be interesting to see how the original frozen carbonated drink evolves right along with it. And we’ll be there to have a sip—in moderation, of course.

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Thanks again to David for writing this great mid-summer piece (but no thanks for making me want one).

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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