Ice Cream Codas
Get the scoop on Portland’s last dips.
STORY BY ANGELA SANDERS
PHOTOS BY PETER SCHWEITZER
To understand how deeply the soda fountain is woven into American culture, think of Lana Turner sipping a Coke at Schwab’s Pharmacy or the kids from Archie comic books gathering over ice cream sodas. For decades, everyone from flappers to GIs to Eisenhower-era housewives stopped at the drugstore for coffee or a malted.
These days, however, pharmacy soda fountains are as scarce as drive-in movie theaters. In Portland, only two drugstore soda fountains remain: Fairley’s Pharmacy in the Roseway neighborhood and Paulsen’s Pharmacy in Hollywood. While Fairley’s cleaves to the classic drugstore soda fountain model, Paulsen’s nudges it into the 21st century.
First, a brief history: In the late 18th century, scientists figured out how to make soda water by fizzing the water with carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. Making soda water required heavy-duty equipment and someone trained to operate it. Since mineral springs had long been associated with health, and since pharmacies were in the business of mixing tonic elixirs (some including opiates or cocaine), enterprising businessmen began selling soda-making equipment to pharmacies.
These soda fountains became money-makers. And social centers. Over the next century, tonics brewed to give pep or calm nerves evolved into less medicinal fruity phosphates and ice cream sodas. When Prohibition closed bars in the 1920s, the soda fountain leapt further in importance.
By the 1940s, bottled soda began to make gains on freshly tapped soda. Soda fountains slowly disappeared, replaced by fast-food restaurants and, eventually, vending machines and supermarket six-packs.
For a classic, old-style pharmacy soda fountain in Portland, you’ll want to try Fairley’s, founded in 1913. At Fairley’s, the mint-green, World War II–era Hamilton shake machine still reigns. Employee Ann Fetters points at a silver-toned plastic shake machine nearby. “That’s a Hamilton, too. A new commercial model. Doesn’t hold a candle to the old one.” Ann’s father, Mike Dorsey, sips coffee at the counter, and her son, Aiden, helps owner Shawna Laxton in the pharmacy under the circus-style “Prescriptions” sign.
“At least once a week we get people who see us because they remember the old soda fountains,” Ann says. “They come from all over. Once we had a woman who brought in her grandchildren for ice cream sodas. She loved them as a kid and couldn’t wait for her grandkids to try them.” Ann sighs. “Tastes have changed. The kids couldn’t believe it was basically ice cream and soda water.”
Other soda fountain classics Fairley’s offers include tart phosphate sodas (made with a few drops of citric acid rather than the original phosphoric acid), such as the Green River, a lime version. Sundaes, shakes, malteds, and egg creams (milk, chocolate syrup, and soda water) are on the menu, too, along with the espresso drinks and Italian sodas available at any coffee shop in town.
High school students from nearby Roseway Heights stop by after school for milkshakes, and a local dentist even gives his patients “prescriptions” for ice cream at the Fairley’s soda fountain. My strawberry phosphate tingles my tongue with its tart and sweet flavor.
“The fountain barely breaks even,” says Ann, “but we’d never close it.”
Until last spring, Paulsen’s and Fairley’s soda fountains weren’t so different. Paulsen’s Pharmacy, founded in 1918, had a similar menu of Green Rivers, egg creams, ice cream sodas, and their special “Joe’s Coke phosphate” with cola and lemon. The pharmacy in the rear was busy, and customers lounged at the marble-topped fountain counter or settled in the worn green chair by the pharmacy counter as they waited for their prescriptions.
In April 2016, InboundRx, a pharmacy marketing rm that owns 10 other pharmacies in California, bought Paulsen’s. By June, the store’s interior — including the soda fountain — was transformed. Gone were the soda taps, replaced by a cooler holding bottled soda. The shelves at the store’s center were re- moved, and tables were set along the store’s sunny eastern face.
“Will I still be able to get a Green River?” a senior customer with a grizzled crew cut asks, befuddled by the pharmacy’s makeover. The woman behind the soda counter says she isn’t sure.
“How about a cherry Coke?” he presses.
“You could buy a Coke,” she says, pointing at the cooler, “and I could add cherry syrup, I guess.”
When I mention egg creams to Joe Amspoker, the pharmacy’s new general manager, he gives me a blank look. “Egg creme,” he jots on his notepad. “What’s that?”
Joe spells out InboundRx’s vision for the pharmacy. “We had to keep the soda fountain. It was in the contract. Of course, we would have kept it anyway,” he adds quickly. He’s planning on serving Stumptown coffee and locally made Fifty Licks ice cream. Also, InboundRx has right of first refusal on buying the space next door. “We want to get Kara’s Cupcakes in there. You’ve seen her on “Cupcake Wars”? She does gluten-free.”
Joe points out where he envisions a mural of Paulsen’s history and where he plans to rip out the soda fountain’s wooden back bar for a mirror and custom shelves to display coffee beans for sale. The pharmacy itself is changing, too, with its old compounding pharmacy becoming a robotics-driven model that has been successful in InboundRx’s California stores.
“We want it to be a neighborhood destination,” says Joe. “It’s not just about money. We’re not just here to sell prescriptions.” With an investor’s practiced eye, he looks over the soda fountain. “Paulsen’s is our beta testing site. If it works, we’ll introduce it at our other locations. We’ll see.”
Portland-based Angela Sanders writes about food, culture, and people. www.angelamsanders.com