It’s apparent that sugary foods and beverages are falling out of vogue these days, but creating artistic presentations and eliciting emotional dining experiences are moving higher on the list of priorities for restaurant owners and their patrons.
In an unlikely twist, this means the soda fountain: the old-school meeting, mingling, and mixing space of the town, is making a comeback, with an emphasis on craft and community creating nostalgia for local eateries—including greasy spoons
Two squirts of syrup, 10 ounces of carbonated water, and a handful of ice is all it takes to make an old-fashioned soda fountain soda. But a true soda jerk knows how to mix much more than those three ingredients. Acid phosphates add a dry tartness to a traditional soda, while a few scoops of ice cream make it a float. An egg cream has a squirt of chocolate syrup and milk topped with a frothy head of seltzer water. Sassafras, teaberry, lavender, ginger, acids, and wintergreen are among additives mixed into sodas at the fountain. Highly concentrated syrups from pineapples, cherries, peaches, oranges, and just about anything that can be juiced are also popular ingredients mixed into traditional sodas that are coming back in today’s fountains—which originally took off when chemists started mixing fruit juices, syrups, and other soothing additives to help customers down foul-tasting medicinal concoctions.
In 1895, there were around 50,000 fountains across the U.S. While the number of fountains has thinned significantly, improvements on the fountain’s efficiency along with creative mixology of different flavors are building steam for a resurgence of this former social scene.
St. Francis Fountain, San Francisco’s oldest ice cream parlor, has been mixing sodas for nearly 100 years—since 1918. Ray Mason, a server at St. Francis, says the neighborhood’s culture has been changing—and not in favor of traditional diner food, with a noticeable shift towards locally sourced and farm-to-table foods.
Despite that, the fountain has been capitalizing on its own local character, and has even added a vegan shake option with vanilla soy ice cream to cater to emerging food and beverage trends.
“We get some people who come in here and say they’ve been coming for 70 years, since they were kids,” Ray says, “so the culture is kind of part of their life.”
Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain was founded in 2010, but the shop’s mission also focuses on finding value in bringing retro charm to a new generation.
Housed in an old 1920s apothecary once called Longo’s Pharmacy, the building took serious refurbishment and some old diner fixtures to come back to life. Using sodas, shakes, malts, and some red diner stools, they sought to attract customers who not only wanted a sweet drink, but also those who had an old connection with the fountain tradition.
Brooklyn Farmacy puts a focus on the old-school experience of the fountain and the soda fountain’s ability to form lasting memories for families by holding special private events. Their soda jerks create custom drinks on the spot for old-school party, birthday, or anniversary entertainment as well as drinking enjoyment, creating a niche for themselves in the experience-heavy dining scene.
The old-school fountains, such as the St. Francis Fountain, that still remain from the early days are no longer the only spots you can find a “fizz” or a “rickey.”
A new sect of soda fountains is growing in popularity across the country. Bubby’s in New York City, Blueplate in Portland, Oregon, and The Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia have gained national attention for their old-school-turned-new soda fountain vibes. Some of these fountains aim to bring back the nostalgia and unity that once surrounded the fountain, while others seek to reinvent the practice as a precise, expressive art form.
For the soda jerks of Soda Pop Culture, a chain originating in Utah, the art behind mixing a soda drives them to make a unique experience for each customer.
New soda fountains like this aim to take old drinks and make them something new—using old recipes and adding news twists, sometimes even mixing in a shot of energy drink for an extra kick. The franchise’s co-owners, Brad and Erin Boyle, include flavored shots of anything from toasted marshmallow and grenadine to guava, huckleberry, and green apple on the menu. The restaurant serves more than 30 base drink options, allowing customers to add shots and toppings of their choosing.
Fiiz Drinks, another growing franchise in Utah, now has eight locations in the state that sell inventive drinks with old-school names like The Pink Poodle, Kermie, and Rubber Ducky.
The thought and art that goes into mixing these new, old-school sodas “represents the movement toward higher quality—meaning seasonal, small-batch, local, and even organic,” Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights at the Hartman Group, a consumer trends consultancy, said in an interview with NPR.
The days of stopping by the local pop shop for a nickel soda are gone, but the art and unity behind hand-mixing a fizzy, fruity drink has returned.
Even as soft drink sales decline in light of this century’s healthy-eating craze, the old-school soda shop is fighting its way to the limelight, bringing both nostalgia for older customers and a new way to embrace the artful food trend for younger generations.