The Cold Stone Creamery's Creamery Cup contest will pit entrants against a number of challenges during the semifinal and final rounds on Aug. 6 and 7, respectively:
• A written test of the company's 20 signature ice cream/topping combinations.
• Accurately scooping ice cream to within 1/4 ounce of a 5-, 8- and 12-ounce portion without the benefit of measuring equipment.
• Quickly mixing three flavor combinations on the company's signature refrigerated stone.
• Creating and performing an original song with a small group of other semifinalists.
• The quality of her customer service to a panel of judges.
• Writing a timed essay on an unannounced topic.
• Creating and performing an original song on her own.
• Completing a written test on various facts about Cold Stone Creamery.
• A blind taste test of various Cold Stone Creamery products.
Based on the hang time the ice cream clocks while tumbling in the air above Cold Stone Creamery's frost-covered mixing stone, Courtney Branson sees it the way hibachi chefs see a piece of shrimp. Or maybe the way a juggler does a pair of chainsaws.
Branson, 21, has worked at the Cold Stone Creamery franchise on Chestnut Street for 21/2 years while studying to be a civil engineer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. To her, launching several ounces of creamy goodness several feet over her head, then back into her mixing spades is just part of the job, if one she was happy to master when she began working there in 2011.
"I like throwing. Everybody does it," says Branson, the creamery's assistant manager, during a lull before the business' doors open at noon on Tuesday. "Customers love it because you don't get to see that anywhere else."
Given the creamery's predisposition for turning the ice cream experience into a kinetic spectacle, Branson faced stiff competition in June when she decided to enter the Creamery Challenge, an inaugural contest open to employees at Cold Stone's 1,000 U.S. locations. The requirements? Create a two-minute video demonstrating her various skills, including mixing a cup at lightning speed, singing an original song and -- of course -- showing off a bit.
Her video impressed the judges, who selected her as one of 12 entrants to advance to the semifinals, which will be held in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Aug. 6. If she can successfully win them over there, she'll advance to the finals the next day. That round will decide who wins $5,000 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan this fall to represent the U.S. at Cold Stone's Global Creamery Cup Competition.
Branson describes herself as shy, but on camera, she's all flash. With a yellow Batman cape streaming behind her and the Caped Crusader's signature theme music from the 1960's TV show playing in the background, Branson rushes around, singing and tossing scoops of Sweet Cream as she crafts the Founder's Favorite signature blend and a graham cracker-marshmallow-fudge concoction she calls MoonPie Magic.
But the piéce de résistance comes at the close, when she runs out the front door and catches a scoop of ice cream launched in a 30-foot-arc into an empty cup in her right hand.
Nervousness turned the speaking sections of the video into an exercise in trial and error, requiring many takes and eventually cue cards, but Branson, a former college-level softball player, says she nailed the cream-a-pult stunt on her second try.
"They just took a spade and chucked it," she says. "I hope it was impressive."
The creamery's co-owners Rita McCay and Sally Vogelmeier say they're not surprised that Branson was selected. They say she has stood out as the most dedicated member of their staff ever since they took over the franchise in February 2012 from its former owners -- and Branson's aunt and uncle -- Kelley and Travis Branson.
"It's hard to compare [other employees] to her because she's one-of-a-kind," Vogelmeier says. "We try to hold them to a level close to her, but I don't think we compare everyone up to her level."
Branson has a year more experience with Cold Stone than either of its new owners, and McCay says she was crucial during the occasionally difficult transition to new management.
"I think she truly cares about the store as much as Sally and I do," McCay explains. "She might not be an owner, but she cares about it like she owns it. That is -- let me tell you -- very, very hard to find in an employee."
McCay and Vogelmeier were so impressed with Branson's performance that they nominated her as a Crew Member of the Year, an annual award conferred to only 20 Cold Stone employees nationwide.
As Branson prepares for the competition in Arizona, she insists she isn't nervous. The hard part was making the video, and the rest is just down to memorization and practice, which she says comes naturally to her as a self-proclaimed perfectionist.
In the meantime, she plans to keep the scoops airborne and generally doing what she's always done, albeit with the occasional addition of a Batman cape to her uniform.
"Wearing it makes work more fun, she says, laughing. "It makes people smile. If everyone is having a good time, it's a better experience for everybody."
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP