The virtues of Pittsburgh (hard work, attention to all the details, and a keen but humble eye on the future) make it easy to understand why so many major, long-lived brands started right here in the Steel City. Think Heinz, Isaly’s, PPG Industries, and Duolingo, just to name a few. Pittsburgh embraces — and rewards — the fearless entrepreneur. And there’s always room for one more.
The Milkshake Factory, a family-owned and operated ice cream and chocolate shop in the South Side since 2003, began as a single storefront before growing to 11 locations around the Greater Pittsburgh area. They are now on the precipice of franchising but want to do so in a way that only adds to what their family — Greek immigrants who settled in Lawrenceville in 1913 — started more than a century ago.
A Chocolate-Filled Upbringing
“Our family started as chocolatiers,” said Chris Edwards, co-founder of The Milkshake Factory. “We lived above the original shop on 52nd and Butler Street. When my mom brought me home from the hospital, she took me straight to the chocolate factory. Everyone who worked with us was like family.”
His mother, Dona, was the driving force behind the shop and would eventually take over the day-to-day operations of what is now The Milkshake Factory. While the chocolate shop had been a staple in the community since the 1970s, it wasn’t until they began their milkshake happy hours in 2003 that things started to shift.
Dana Edwards, co-founder and CEO of The Milkshake Factory, had this old family photo of a giant milkshake with their grandfather and great-uncle that was behind the counter in the original shop.
“I started thinking about this. Chocolate, as a business, is seasonal. Why don’t we do ice cream in the summer when it’s slow and see what happens?”
I Scream, You Scream…
The photo became a jumping-off point of inspiration. If they were going to make ice cream, it was going to be special. Unique. “We went from a chocolate shop that served milkshakes to a milkshake shop that had chocolate,” said Chris. What started with spinning a few milkshakes eventually exploded into 55 different flavors at one point. “We thought milkshakes were sort of this novelty and it just grew from there,” added Dana. “We loved to see people smile when they left here.”
And it was those smiles that kept them motivated to innovate with new and exciting flavors. “Growing up in a Greek family and in the food business, everything was about flavors,” said Dana. “Our family is all about the food.” She loves to be inspired in her own kitchen as she cooks and has countless conversations with Chris about when and how to push the envelope on flavors. “The science behind this is complex,” she said. “We understand balance and quality. That is at the heart of what we do.”
The Perfect Sip
With thousands of shakes developed or tried, and adding vegan options into the mix, some could say Dana is obsessed with perfecting the milkshake. But she says she’s just invested in her family’s legacy and product. “The goal is always to take a dessert that people love and find out how we can accomplish it as a milkshake. The quality level, and the bar, are high,” she said. Sourcing from local farms, aerating their own ice cream, and creating community through food has always been something near and dear to their hearts, as well. It’s that attention to detail that drives their business.
Naturally, it was only a matter of time before celebrities like Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise made it a stop along their way one fateful day when they were in town. “That was our first time experiencing the power of the celebrity,” said Dana. “Knowing that everyone wanted to try what Katie Holmes had eaten that day put us on the map,” she said.
Since that first South Side location more than two decades ago, the family has ramped up their efforts and has now decided to take a leap into the world of franchising. This decision wasn’t made lightly, and it was actually their mother Dona’s last business decision prior to her death in late 2022.
“She set the foundation, and now we are taking it to new heights because of her dedication,” said Chris. “To be able to showcase Pittsburgh in this way around the country is truly exciting.” The Milkshake Factory is partnering with Franworth, one of the top franchisers in the country. “They said they have never seen a company more poised to take this on,” added Chris.
“We didn’t set out to build a franchise,” said Dana. “We went out to build a successful business and be a part of our neighborhoods and communities. We just realized that this is our next phase,” she said.
They are still going to be operating all of the locations in Pittsburgh and futures franchise will be utilizing the product that Dana’s and Chris’s teams develop. The headquarters will remain in Pittsburgh and their goal is to see the smiles stretch across the country with each new location. “We are a family business and that is what we will stay.”
Story by Natalie Bencivenga / Photos courtesy of Chris and Dana Edwards
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