In 2010, an aging art dealer self-published a memoir that contained a 24-line poem. Buried in the poem’s six stanzas, the man claimed, were nine clues. If followed by a careful reader, the clues would lead to a location somewhere in the Rocky Mountains and a hidden bronze chest filled with more than $1 million in gold pieces and jewels—a prize the seeker could claim as their own.
There is no evidence that the treasure is real. Four people have died looking for it.
The point is that people like a search. The desire to hunt hearkens back to the earliest days of our species, when survival demanded an honorable struggle and we were not assured a place at the top of the food chain. That urge must now be satisfied in far lower-stakes games. We hunt for bargains, not sustenance. We stalk our food only in the aisles of grocery stores and in Seamless menus. The opportunities for real discovery are fewer and farther between.
And now there’s one less, because McDonald’s is just straight-up telling people where to buy a Shamrock Shake.
The Shamrock Shake is a minty green frozen dessert that packs 800 calories in every 22-ounce serving. It is available at select McDonald’s locations for the month leading up to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17.
The shake debuted in 1970 and was originally marketed by a character named Uncle O’Grimacey, ostensibly an Irish relative of Ronald McDonald’s friend Grimace, who visited his purple nephew once a year and brought him a green shake. If that doesn’t sound plausible, watch this 1978 commercial and then let me know when you get “Shamrock Shakes, they’re a beautiful green/The most beautiful green that we’ve ever seen” out of your head.
Today the Shamrock Shake is available in the US, Canada, and Ireland. But here’s the thing: It’s not at every McDonald’s. The decision to offer the beverage at a McDonald’s location rests with each franchisee, and branches serving large swathes of the country choose to deny their customers its thick, creamy greenness.
This is where the hunt comes in. Among the many bastardized versions of Irish folklore recirculated in North America around St. Patrick’s Day is the one about a pot of leprechaun-guarded gold lay at the end of the rainbow. The mythical creatures were indeed said to guard hidden treasures, but the link to the rainbow, and the idea that the meteorological arc could serve as a sort of treasure map for humans seeking gold, is an American invention.
Similarly, the hunt for an Irish-themed milkshake is peculiarly and particularly American. For most of the shake’s 48-year history, McDonald’s has refused to release a map or other directory of locations serving the shake. The company’s reticence has forced devotees to create their own treasure maps, a task fans of the drink applied themselves to with zeal.
In 2009 a journalist chronicled her 24 phone calls to New York City-area McDonald’s restaurants, in search of a Shamrock Shake. By 2016, technology had taken the nationwide obsession to a new level, with online trackers like ShakeLocator.com or ShamrockShake.com offering crowd-sourced guides to Shamrock Shake availability. On those, hunters chronicled their heartbreaks and triumphs.
This year, Shamrock Shake hunters have a new tech tool at their disposal. McDonald’s kicked off Shamrock Shake season with an addition to the Apple and Android app stores: McDonald’s Finder, a mobile directory of every Shamrock Shake-serving outlet in the US. (Shakes in Canada and Ireland are not included.)
But with new technology comes new disappointments. One week after its launch, the app had less than two stars in the iOS App Store and 69 reviews, most of them scathing. “Here we have a company that was founded on quality, consistency, and service. This app has none of those features,” wrote Bobthesuper, voicing common complaints about the difficult user experience.
I don’t drink Shamrock Shakes—something about the combination of mint and dairy makes my stomach roil—but I’m a journalist, so I downloaded the app and proceeded to seek my frosty fortune. It is indeed a very confusing tool. It opens not as an independent app but as an extension in your text messages, presumably so users can send findings to fellow shake lovers post-haste.
When I tapped on the tiny green shake in the App Drawer, all I saw at first was a blank beige screen. Then a grid appeared. The grid turned into a map of the US. And then, after a few seconds, green bubbles blossomed across America.
One-star reviewers must not have made it this far. The app, once running, is a beautiful little piece of data visualization. The circles rearrange themselves as the user zooms in, revealing hamlets of shake availability with ever-greater specificity. Zoom out and the bubbles softly reassemble themselves into a broad overview of this beautiful nation of beverages. Like the Cosmic Eye, but for shakes.
But now that the map of Shamrock Shakes is available for all to see, so is the inexplicable patchwork of shake haves and have-nots that is America in 2018. Before the app, the shake retained a mythical quality in regions where it was hard to find—maybe nobody in town had seen one, but there was always the possibility that one would turn up, somewhere. Now it is starkly clear where the nation’s shake deficits lie.
There is not a single Shamrock Shake to be had in the entire state of Texas. Louisiana too is a shake-free zone. Oklahoma and Arkansas both look shakeless from a distance, though a close zoom reveals 13 stocked outlets in parts of those states bordering shake-rich Missouri. There are 28 McDonald’s serving Shamrock Shakes in Alaska, zero in Hawaii, and two in Sheridan, Wyoming (population 18,000).
After so many years of jealously guarded shake locations, this burst of transparency from McDonald’s reveals just how much we don’t know. McDonald’s has not responded to Quartzy’s requests for comment on the subject, so there’s no insight into the market research that leads to frosty green feasts in some parts of the country and famine in others.
Is this the right business decision? The app is great outreach to the complaisant types who just want to buy and slurp down a mint shake without too much ado. But what of the treasure-seekers? Presumably shake seekers in past years have visited McDonald’s locations in Texas, Louisiana, or Hawaii in hopes of finding the beverage and bought something else as a consolation prize. This year they’ll just stay home—or take extremely long road trips.