Shakes are, by some definitions, ice cream plus milk and, canonically, flavored syrup. Syrups are plant-based, and veganizing the first two components can easily be done with soy, almond, coconut or other options for either the frozen or fluid component.
One thing that can't be stressed enough, which I recently did have to stress at one venue, is that you can't make a vegan shake with vegan ice cream and cow's milk.
It's the constant double-edged sword of "vegan" items at mainstream venues. Kudos and thanks for the effort, but if a vegan orders a vegan beverage, it must be animal-free. Educate your staff; they're all gonna need to know this stuff sooner or later!
A vegan shake-down
My benchmark here was a classic chocolate shake. Fruity shakes are tasty but you can easily mimic them in smoothies (see sidebar). And vanilla is, well, vanilla.
B2 (1500 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-5520), one of the first places in Philly to offer vegan soft serve, has a milkshake made with soy ice cream and soy milk - the old-fashioned way. 16 oz., $3.75; 20 oz., $4.25.
Similarly, Pop Shop, in Collingswood (729 Haddon Ave., 856-869-0111), does vegan shakes with a soy/soy base, bringing much-needed vegan refreshment to South Jersey. 16 oz., $4.99.
Sketch Burger (413 E. Girard Ave., 215-634-3466) has some great vegan mainstays, which I recently sampled. Their chocolate shake is made with coconut-oil-based ice cream and "a little bit of water," I was told. The shake is good in context with, say, the vegan bean burger, but I wouldn't count on it to stand alone as dessert. 16 oz., $7.
P.S. & Co. (1706 Locust St., 215-985-1706) uses a nut-milk base (usually hazelnut or coconut) for its chocolate shake, plus cocoa powder and maple syrup. They also have mint chocolate and decaffeinated chai.
My telephone interlocutor made sure I understood the importance of sprouted nuts, the commitment to no refined sugar and other top-notch features of this shake before moving on to the specs: 16 oz., $12.84 with tax.
Little Baby's (Fishtown: 2311 Frankford Ave., 267-687-8567; West Philly: 4903 Catharine St., 215-921-2100) is not a vegan ice-cream company, but they've got a big scoop of Philly's vegan ice-cream market and recently expanded to a second location.
The vegan shake is coconut ice cream with almond, coconut or soy milk. And while there's no "plain chocolate" shake, Little Baby's offers twists such as Chipotle Chocolate or Chocolate Salt Malt. Yes, that's a vegan "malted!" 12 oz., $6; 16 oz., $8.
Franklin Fountain (116 Market St., 215-627-1899) may be the oldest source of dairy-free shakes in Philly. I'm told the place has had them since at least 2011. It's coconut ice cream plus almond milk. 16 oz., $8.10 with tax; 20 oz., $9.18 with tax.
Best of the bunch
While I didn't try every vegan shake in the Delaware Valley, I will say that from what I gathered from my vegan tweeps or sampled myself, the $5 shake at HipCityVeg (Rittenhouse: 127 S. 18th St., 215-278-7605; University City: 214 S. 40th St., 267-244-4342) is the all-around shake to beat.
Made with that time-honored combo of soy ice cream (vanilla) and soy milk plus cocoa powder, it came the closest to delivering the rich, creamy, chocolaty satisfaction of my soda-jerk days. 16 oz., $5.