These Over-the-Top Milkshakes Are Straight From Your Childhood Dreams
Volcano Shakes in Chinatown sculpts over-the-top towers of sweetness, often with a wait time of a half hour or more.
A crowd gathers at the corner of Hotel and Maunakea streets in Chinatown to stare—not at someone yelling wildly or an unusual street performer—but at an oversize milkshake.
And it’s quite a sight. Imagine a big plastic cup, overflowing with homemade ice cream and adorned with doughnuts, chocolate, candies, cookies, caramel, breakfast cereal and more. Each, nearly a foot tall.
THE EPIC MAUNA LOA VOLCANO SHAKE ($15.25), FILLED WITH COFFEE ICE CREAM, THREE KINDS OF DOUGHNUTS, BISCOTTI, CHOCOLATE CHIPS, CHOCOLATE SAUCE AND WHIPPED CREAM. IT TAKES ABOUT 15 MINUTES TO MAKE EACH SHAKE.
Photo: James Charisma
These are the signature desserts of Volcano Shakes, a small shop attracting both locals and tourists to visit, order, stare in astonishment and, of course, take a photo.
“I’d bet that maybe 90 percent of our shakes are posted online somewhere. Everyone takes a picture,” says Volcano Shakes owner Peter Chamberlin. He and his business partner, Meghann Walker, originally moved to Hawai‘i from Chicago in 2015, intending to start an online furniture company. The furniture company was online within a few weeks, so it was time to plan their next venture: a drink and smoothie stand. When they discovered a tiny spot on Hotel Street, they quickly jumped on it, envisioning an outdoor counter and a curbside window.
By early 2016, they had set up shop at the corner, offering milkshakes, sundaes, ice cream sandwiches, Italian sodas, coffee and more. But the business struggled. Granted, they were only open sporadically throughout the week while they continued to build out their location, but, in general, interest was slim. Soon, their concern shifted from developing the business to simply finding ways to circulate a huge inventory of perishable items.
“The ice cream sandwiches weren’t selling,” says Walker. “One day we thought, what if we just include the ice cream sandwich with the shake?”
They threw the ice cream sandwich right on top and sold it as a combo. They added candy, too, plus syrups and coffee. The holidays offered another opportunity to experiment: For St. Patrick’s Day in March, Walker decided to create a special shake with a Guinness reduction, sprinkled with Lucky Charms cereal. The Easter shake featured marshmallow Peeps, chocolate eggs and a gigantic Cadbury chocolate rabbit on top.
Walker took photos of the epic shakes, which they decided to feature as a regular item on their menu, and Chamberlin went to hang the printed images on the front outside the shop. Before he was even finished mounting the first photo, someone passing by ordered one.
Interest in the new shakes spread fast. For weeks, there were more photos up on the #volcanoshakes hashtag on Instagram than there were on the @volcanoshakes account. They had to create a website with an online Paypal ordering system to accommodate the number of requests they were getting. Today, Volcano Shakes has become so popular that the wait time for a shake can range anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours; sometimes Walker and Chamberlin have to stop accepting walk-up orders in the middle of the day because they won’t be able to finish them all in time. That’s because Volcano Shakes can only produce one shake every 15 minutes.
The menu of Instagrammable shakes at Volcano Shakes in Chinatown.
Photo: David Croxford
Seems the shakes can’t be made by just piling everything up like a sandwich. They’re built in stages; cupcakes and doughnuts are held up with wooden skewers, and the ice cream needs to be soft enough to scoop and but strong enough to hold up the toppings. It’s like building a sculpture out of warm oatmeal. Another factor is space. At just 77 square feet, Volcano Shakes can neither store a lot of product and back stock—nor can it fit more than three people behind the counter to help. And, with the heat outside, the staff can’t even begin assembling the shake until the customer is right there in front of them, otherwise it’ll melt.
“The ironic part is that making the milkshake itself is the fastest part,” Chamberlin says.
An online ordering system helps. And in time, Volcano Shakes wants to expand or move to a different location, preferably one with a dining room (and air conditioning). Meanwhile, they’re lovingly making each shake one at a time, on order. Luckily, they’re worth the wait. Not just if you’ve got friends visiting from out of town with young kids or you’re on a date and looking to try something fun for dessert, but as part of your Chinatown routine. Come downtown with friends, go shopping, have drinks, get a bite to eat and, if you order in advance, split a shake.
Sometimes you see photos of food but the real-life version doesn’t look at all as impressive as the picture. Not so at Volcano Shakes. Here, what you see is what you get; the shakes are pricey (between $11 to $16), but you get a lot. Each shake is massive and decadent. I ordered the Mauna Loa, filled with coffee ice cream, three kinds of doughnuts, biscotti, chocolate chips, chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Its namesake twin, Mauna Kea, features charred marshmallows, and s’mores complete with chocolate and graham crackers. Other options include the Haleakalā, a red velvet shake that comes with a big cupcake; the Mount St. Helens, with a happy heap of assorted chocolate chip cookies; and the PB Eruption, a peanut butter shake featuring crumbled Nutter Butter cookies on top. And despite all the fanciful toppings, the shake itself is great. They make the ice cream themselves and the shakes aren’t just an over-the-top sugar rush.
“In my opinion, a milkshake is the perfect dessert,” says Chamberlin. “But usually when you order one, you’re disappointed. Either they don’t use real ice cream or it’s too syrupy or the flavor is simply sugar. It’s a tricky balance.”
That being said, Volcano Shakes are what you might imagine a big dinner in CandyLand. They’re insane, colorful mountains of epic proportions. It’s the first time I’ve been intimidated by ice cream.
In the end, the best part about going to Volcano Shakes is that it’s fun. Sure, you could snag all the ingredients nearby yourself: a shake from Downbeat Diner, homemade ice cream from Wing Ice Cream, candy toppings from Longs, baked goodies from Mr. Donut—but you wouldn’t get the experience. You wouldn’t get the dessert mountain of your small-kid dreams. You wouldn’t have to quickly eat the entire shake with your friends before it melts. And, most importantly, you wouldn’t have the critical Instagram photo of your mega-treat—which is what brought you to Volcano Shakes in the first place.
Volcano Shakes, 102 N. Hotel St., 888-9939, volcanoshakes.com