Inside a Sheetz gas station on U.S. Route 29 in Virginia, next to the predictable Slurpee machine, sat an almighty F'Real shake-maker this weekend. Something like a DIY malt shop from the future, it lets you pick from a mini-freezer of ice cream cups (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry or a limited-edition egg nog) and thickness settings (extra, regular or less thick). After dropping my vanilla into the sleek blue machine and choosing extra-thick, the cup levitated to a shake-making heaven. Some bzzt noises later, and it dropped back down to our mortal world.
Creamy and chalky-white, it wasn't much more sophisticated than McDonald's vanilla soft-serve, but very satisfying with all that buttercream and host of scary chemicals. Cellulose gum, maltodextrin, carrageenan and dextrose. For $2.29, the most satisfying part, of course, was the futuristic, hands-on element. There's absoltuely no countertop, no glass case or no middleman of any kind between you and the shake! You're basically on par with Jimmy, the jolly-looking, old-timey mascot wearing his ice cream parlour lab coat, smiling at you. He must be thinking back to the dinosaur days of churning by hand. Ha!Jim Farrell, who graduated from Harvard B-School. Crazy Shake-Making Technologies 101? Apparently he took it. Just an hour before this, I was savoring fig port gelato from Charlottesville's downtown Splendora's, which was rightfully more delicious, but more life-changing? No, way. Overall, my first Sheetz experience was leagues beyond any name-brand gas station stop. Like Wawa, they had made-to-order deli sandwiches with touch screens, and all sorts of fun, unfamiliar junk food. Like Hershey's chocolate chewing gum sitting near the register. F'real. Best Route 29 roadtrip stop ever.