14 Chain Restaurants That Serve Real Ice Cream

Judging by our national consumption habits, Americans aren't giving up ice cream any time soon. We'll trawl to the supermarket for a pint that might disappear over the course of a TV show, or when it's time to show a little restraint, treat ourselves to a goodie from the drive-thru. Anyone who eats fast food knows there are loads of establishments that carry ice cream, perhaps buttressed between delectable toppings or as thick swirls heaved onto a cone. 

While we're not the sort of people to turn down a McDonald's soft serve, it's not top-tier either. Sure, this sort of treat might be extra-smooth and tasty, but more often than not it's ultra-processed and poured out of an unlabeled packet. You're in luck if you can get a milkshake with real ice cream, let alone an employee heaping the real deal into a blender.

So where can dessert lovers turn to for a fresh, creamy treat in a pinch? As it turns out, options abound for real ice cream at some of our favorite franchises going today. Some of the places on our list sling out home-spun frozen goodies, while others are full-blown creameries that do the churning themselves. 

1. Shake Shack

Starting with the least surprising franchise on our list, Shake Shack spins up real dairy treats — namely milkshakes, as well as frozen custard and concretes — alongside its award-winning hamburgers and crinkle fries. All of the desserts incorporate frozen custard, prepared on-site daily. The flavors are fairly standard (just chocolate and vanilla), yet they form the base for indulgent, decadently-crafted combinations. 

To the naked eye, frozen custard and ice cream seem no different, as both are rich and creamy, and often require a spoon to eat. However, the swirly custard mixture contains a key ingredient that separates it from ice cream: egg yolk, which enriches the treat. With a slower churn than ice cream, custard becomes a luscious blend. 

Shake Shack sources cage-free eggs, and while that's undoubtedly positive for ethical and environmental reasons, there's no skirting around the obvious fact that it just tastes better. Since the chain's locations vastly outnumber those in its previous life as a New York hot dog cart (over 240 in the U.S. as of 2022), it's never been easier to snag its frozen goodies fresh out of the machine. 

2. Friendly's

Friendly's has been a big name in the ice cream business going back to the Great Depression, and there's a reason for that: the Massachusetts-based brand churns out some of the freshest treats on the block. While grocery shoppers typically spy its swirly red logo in the freezer section, the standalone restaurants' massive sundaes and sculptural scoops inspire childlike wonder. Even better? It's all made at the company's dairy plant near Springfield, Massachusetts, just a hop away from its corporate office. 

Although the facility assembles pre-packaged desserts for supermarkets, ice cream is proffered in its parlors, too. Friendly's doesn't use imported milk for its ice cream. Rather, the chain stays close to home by sourcing ingredients from local dairy farms, while the ice cream is made from scratch at its plant. Beginning with pasteurization and ending with cartons of creamy goodness, the bounty is then delivered to Friendly's restaurants. Unless you wolf down your cheeseburger too fast, be sure to save room for a Nutty Buddy Sundae or a seriously yummy milkshake like the Strawberry Fribble.

3. Culver's

With almost more than 900 locations in 26 states, finding true-blue frozen custard won't be a fool's errand when there's a Culver's in view. A 2019 Market Force poll showed that the Wisconsin franchise dominates the frozen treat arena, and it's no mystery why. For its signature scratch-made dessert, the chain touts its use of fresh milk — and a splash of vanilla extract – that churns nice and easy in proprietary equipment until served on request. 

A fast food chain using wholesome ingredients definitely stands out, but Culver's doesn't stop there. The chain constantly cranks out new batches of ice cream throughout the day, so often that a customer's scoop might coincide with a fresh batch prepared in the back moments prior. 

Besides the mouthwatering array of American comfort bites (cheese curds and Butterburgers, anybody?), this frozen custard is the creme de la creme of this fast food chain. When it comes to drizzling dreamy ribbons of bliss inside a waffle cone, nothing else will do. Did we mention there's a different flavor every day of the week? 

4. Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers

At Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, visitors can expect fantastic frozen custard (obviously) without any shortcuts or skimps in quality. From open to close, it's a small-batch operation where flavors like chocolate and vanilla can be swirled to order. And with fresh churns arriving like clockwork, you never have to wait long for your order. 

Seeing as a quarter of the chain's profits come from the chilled confection, it's not hard to see what makes Freddy's a hit with customers. For one, that custard is never prepared in advance. The frozen custard is so fresh, you can count on seeing employees whipping up the mixture behind the counter before they hand you your treat. 

Chopped nuts, candy bars, and gummy worms make up the dozens of add-ins Freddy's offers, but we don't blame you for going basic if that's what your palate craves. Thanks to the bevy of hand-spun ingredients, the richness of real dairy alone offers all the delicious taste you need. While Kansas is the state Freddy's first called home, its homemade custard is swirling in hundreds of Freddy's dining rooms nationwide. 

5. Steak 'n Shake

Another regional chain to put fresh, diner-level milkshakes on the map has a name to go with it. Midwesterners getting their burger fix at Steak 'n Shake can snag over a dozen different flavors, but the uniting features between each delight are the exceptional ingredients. Every dessert, no matter if it's mixed with crushed Oreo cookies or bits of Butterfinger, contains both 2% milk and the ever-appealing "premium ice cream." 

Steak 'n Shake's milkshakes have always embodied richly creamy perfection, but strictly speaking, that isn't the equivalent of stirring in actual dairy. As per a former employee on Reddit, restaurants used to be a lot less particular about the contents of its treat, using a processed mix that was blended as opposed to scooped by hand. Nobody who goes to Steak 'n Shake probably complains about ice cream, but is there really any debate on matters of finely-churned bliss in a cup? 

Today there are more than 550 Steak 'n Shake locations in the U.S., meaning the opportunity for a real ice cream treat is likely just a car ride away. 

6. Whataburger

When it comes to Whataburger, the chain's meat-saddled sandwiches hog our appetites. That said, don't let the lure of a triple-decker burger deprive you of the dreaminess churning from the restaurant's milkshake machine. The Texas joint combines fresh, real ice cream in its drinkable desserts, and the result is an indulgence that's extra tasty thanks to top-notch quality. Add in the hefty size (a small is 16 ounces) and there's no wonder it's got so many fans.

To be clear, Whataburger doesn't appear to build flavors from scratch like other premium fast food places. Instead, it relies on syrups and extracts. Vanilla is the base, an alleged employee on Reddit explained, which allows the restaurant to make the shakes quickly without the additional labor of creating — or at the very least, obtaining — different ice creams. 

Still, that doesn't change the smooth consistency that can only be created from a heaping scoop of the good stuff. Wash down your beast feast with chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry, or sip a rotating specialty like Dr. Pepper or White Chocolate Raspberry. 

7. Potbelly

Ice cream is the dessert de jour at burger-and-fry spots, but who says it doesn't go with sandwiches, too? At Potbelly, those with a sweet tooth can slurp up milkshakes in vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, Oreo, and (most recently) cold brew. But there's a twist: These aren't ordinary shakes processed through a spout. Instead, they're "hand-dipped" to order. This means that ice cream is dished up by an employee, who'll proceed to dump it into the blender, easy-peasy. 

Whenever a major franchise claims to use wholesome ingredients, it's common for skeptics to climb out of the woodwork and exclaim "really?" But when a doubtful customer questioned the chain's sincerity on Twitter, the response was straight to the point. The franchise insisted that the core ingredients of its milkshakes came straight from cartons (milk and ice cream) rather than industrial packets. In short, what you see is actually what you get. Considering the vanilla milkshake packs in nearly 700 calories, it's not hard to believe that real dairy is involved. It's foamy, rich, and decadent, the way any good milkshake should be. 

8. Carl's Jr.

Seeking out fast food ice cream that's so fresh, it'll knock the tastebuds right off your tongue? Carl's Jr. (or Hardee's for the East Coast set) started selling milkshakes in the early aughts. From the moment these hit the menu, some wondered why it didn't happen sooner. Each beverage is assembled to order, while the base consists of real dairy ingredients. A splash of milk goes into every 16-ounce cup on the line, and you can opt for four different flavors: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, and Oreo. 

That the hamburger purveyor would eventually stake its claim on frozen desserts only makes sense when you regard its food lineup. Far heftier in size than the usual drive-thru fare, sandwiches like the Thickburgers or Famous Stars are famous for a savory charbroiled finish and superior meats. The fries appear rustic and peeled by hand. There are also crispy zucchini rounds and onion rings. In other words, Carl's Jr. Is a little more gourmet than what we expect, and the milkshakes are no exception to that scratch-made decadence. 

9. Sonic Drive-In

Cooling off drivers since 1953, there's no destination made for beating the heat quite like Sonic Drive-In. All those huge waffle cones and candy-rippled shakes just scream summer. While we would guess that some of those come ready-made out of a packet, the reality is much sunnier. Believe it or not, the drive-in manages to sell freshly-spun ice cream on top of all those tater tots and foot-long coneys. It's knowledge that makes our brains freeze — in the best way possible. 

The chain started the switch to authentic dairy back in 2010, and while it's fairly recent, the nutritional makeover was far from a passing phase. The chain's ice cream and toppings were tweaked to cut out artificial additives that plenty of customers were avoiding. This certainly promoted nutritional transparency on behalf of the public, but the revamp also had another benefit: overloading our tastebuds with the sultriest, smoothest soft serve you won't believe can cost as little as $2. 

10. In-N-Out Burger

Making things from scratch comes naturally at In-N-Out Burger. Between hand-formed beef patties and fries rendered out of whole spuds, the California institution has raised the bar for fast food to an impressive height. It's not a tall order, then, to expect a fresher-than-fresh milkshake from the chain. In-N-Out claims that employees exhibit the same level of care towards the chilled dessert as they do for any of the other menu items. How so? Why, by scooping only the finest, top-of-the-line ice cream worthy of a hallowed drive-thru icon. 

Compared to the restaurant's Double-Doubles or Animal Style fries, the milkshakes don't lap up the same kind of attention. After all, there are only three flavors to pick from, mostly standard types all burger joints carry such as chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. And yet, In-N-Out doesn't slouch on the menu item that could easily be treated as an after-thought, boldly proclaiming to stir "real ice cream" into each cup sold. While the varieties are a tad plain alone, it's hard to beat a smoothly-sweet puree of milk and cream whipped up on the spot. 

11. Braum's

Those who live in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, or Kansas have the realest of ice creams right at their fingertips with Braum's. With roots dating back to the early 1930s, this creamery-meets-diner dishes up top-notch desserts alongside hamburgers and fries. The quality speaks for itself. Not only is the ice cream churned from scratch and transported via truck to every restaurant within range, but the establishment maintains its own dairies that produce the milk incorporated into its frozen treats. Honestly, can it get any fresher than that? 

Unfortunately, Braum's doesn't venture farther than a 300-mile radius around its dairy, so ice cream lovers outside the aforementioned states will need to make a trek to grab a taste for themselves. But that means visitors will receive the smoothest, dreamiest scoops since the restaurant refuses to sacrifice the techniques that have made its ice creams a culinary landmark. Vanilla or chocolate are tried-and-true varieties that won't let you down, but the real treat Braum's has over other chains? The sheer selection. Pick from among 100 flavors in all colors of the rainbow, like Neapolitan, Cherry Chocolate Chip, Brownie Batter, Butter Brickle, and many more.  

12. BurgerFi

A smaller, but no less mighty franchise that's scooping out pure dairy sweetness is a hip burger joint based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. BurgerFi launched in 2011 and currently has over 100 locations cranking out fancier, organically-sourced takes on American comfort food. The desserts include ice cream, of course, which is whirled in harmonious ribbons for the milkshakes, custards, and thick slabs of concretes customers can order plain or bedazzled with toppings. 

When it comes to chilled treats, the chain is wholeheartedly committed to mixing its sweets from the good stuff, namely cream, milk, and loads of eggs. Combined, these key ingredients form the thickened blend that's dense enough for packing into a cup or beefing up the average milkshake.

So, if you're seeking out a first-rate swirl of wholesome ingredients? Just hit up your neighborhood BurgerFi to score some of the best ice cream that money can buy. 

13. Fatburger

"The Last Great Hamburger Stand" is a lofty title to live up to, yet Fatburger's worn it well over seven decades. Par for the course as an American diner, the Los Angeles-based company offers milkshakes to accompany its sprawling lineup of hamburgers and fries. Corporate chains like this aren't always the freshest, but here you can inhale a freshly-grilled sandwich before digging into a shake composed of — you guessed it — hand-scooped, top-tier ice cream. Color us impressed. 

The term "hand-scooped" is fairly self-explanatory, but because there are so many misconceptions that tend to float around, it's important to elaborate. When whipping together a milkshake, some chains might dump a proprietary mix into the machine. While it'll look and more taste like real ice cream, additives can lend an artificial flavor that sticks out like a sore thumb. By contrast, scooping the ice cream manually implies that the restaurant is using actual ice cream, rather than a mass-produced mixture intended to resemble it. Nothing beats watching an employee prepare your afternoon treat with a scoop in hand!

14. Jack's

Jack's footprint only comprises a small pocket of the southern U.S., but tucked inside its humble storefronts are marvelous ice creams other fast food chains strive to match. In addition to Texas toast sandwiches and jumbo patties, the menu features brain-freezing bliss in the form of milkshakes and whole scoops made with fresher-than-fresh dairy. Not only that, but the flavors you'll find are more in line with those of a classic ice cream parlor. How many other franchises offer Moose Tracks and Smokey Mountain Fudge?

Whipping up its frozen delights will require a living person because the process is entirely manual (that's where "hand-dipped" and "hand-scooped" come in). The quality of the ice cream is also pretty supreme, too. In the case of its dream-inducing Espresso Chocolate Chunk Milkshake, the franchise uses Mayfield ice cream, a dairy manufacturer with a long history of churning quality products. Just look at the illustrious peaks of a just-spun shake and tell us it isn't the real thing!