It’s an old-fashioned business model, the combination of drugstore and soda fountain, dating back to when pharmacists had to compound each prescription, and food counters and soda fountains offered patrons something to do while they waited. The ritual has largely disappeared, yielding to 24-hour drugstores and drive-through pharmacies. But here in North Carolina, four local drugstores continue that tradition. Each has its own flavor; each serves simply prepared fare: grilled cheese, tuna salad, hot dogs. And the prize: freshly squeezed fruit ’ades.
Ashworth Drugs in Cary makes its customers feel at home.
he future Ashworth’s Drugs opened in 1931 at the only stoplight in town, on the corner of West Chatham and South Academy streets. When the Ashworth family bought the store — then known as Adams Rexall Drugs — in 1957, Cary had about 2,000 residents. As the population has swelled to more than 150,000, Ralph Ashworth has become the unofficial town ambassador, welcoming newcomers and offering a spot at the soda fountain.
In 1992, when Paul Ashworth moved back to Cary to run his father’s business, he didn’t immediately recognize the social value of the soda fountain. “When I came to take over the pharmacy, my father only asked one thing from me,” Ashworth says. “He said, ‘You have to keep the fountain.’ ”
If Ashworth hadn’t made that promise, he says, he might have replaced the fountain with merchandise. But as he’s learned, the food counter offers more than just a lunch of chicken salad and an orangeade.
“The fountain has a much bigger purpose than just a financial thing,” Ashworth says. “We’re looking at a bigger picture and a bigger mission. Our mission is to continue to be a community gathering place.”
— Elizabeth Friend
105 West Chatham Street
Cary, NC 27511
At Smith’s Drugs, handmade frosty ’ades and frozen ice cream sodas are the perfect antidote to a sweltering summer day.
Sweet and tart, the Pink Lady comes iced and iridescent, the color of a flamingo. The drink practically glows in its Styrofoam cup. Four cherries recline like bathers atop the mix. Is it proper, between sips, to lift a cherry, delicately, and pop it off the stem with your teeth? Of course it is.
Next in the drink line: orangeade, a golden nectar of orange juice and simple syrup, a hummingbird’s drink. The Orange Freeze — Sprite, cherry juice, and orange sherbet topped with more cherries — is half-frozen sugar. For the Freeze, though, Angela Rybolt mixes in cherry juice, as opposed to the Pink Lady, which takes cherry syrup.
“See, now, this goes in this, and this in this,” Rybolt says, leaning over the counter at Smith’s Drugs, a pharmacy and soda fountain in downtown Forest City. Here, customers have sipped concoctions for 77 years, since J.M. Smith opened the drugstore in 1939.
When diners want theirs a certain way, Rybolt and Amber McCraw, who’s also working the counter today, make the drinks to order. Otherwise, Rybolt says, “I fix ’em the way I like ’em. That’s my motto.”
It’s the kind of place where, as on a recent Saturday morning, you encounter a couple at a table downing platefuls of livermush, eggs, and biscuits. Walk in the front door, and you’ll see the pharmacy to your left, the eatery to your right, and more tables lining a long corridor toward the back. Smith’s gets so packed on weekends that the manager had to hire a hostess.
Behind the counter, Brandi Nanney informs me that I’ve missed out on the salted caramel ice cream, which was “fabulous,” she says. “Of course, it’s gone,” Rybolt chimes in. “But that’s why.” The Pink Lady is served in a 16-ounce cup. Too much, I tell Rybolt, who brings me a smaller portion. It’s perfect, especially in the summer, when cold sugar tastes like salvation.
— Greg Lacour
139 East Main Street
Forest City, NC 28043
Let’s Do Lunch
Hobnob with old friends — and make new ones — at Brown-Gardiner in Old Irving Park.
In Greensboro on a sunny Saturday, Brown-Gardiner is filled with the sound of sizzling bacon as cooks prepare for the lunch rush. Teens sit in the window booth, sipping orangeades and whispering. Three generations of family members share grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, and crinkle-cut fries at a nearby table. At the L-shaped counter that stretches nearly the length of the store, little kids twirl on the spinning blue stools, swinging their legs with glee.
Hilaire Haulsch knows many of the regulars and their life stories. She started coming to Brown-Gardiner for orangeades as a young girl, then took a job behind the counter at age 14. Now, nine years later, she’s a full-time teacher and grad student, but despite her busy schedule, she says she can’t stay away: “I still work on Saturdays because it’s not a job to me. It’s fun.”
In a victory reminiscent of David’s over Goliath, Brown-Gardiner managed to survive the opening of an Eckerd Drug store directly across the street. Eckerd closed, and now the spot is a Salvation Army thrift store that cheerfully shares its parking lot with Brown-Gardiner during peak hours.
The sense of camaraderie stretches beyond the doors of the drugstore into the wider community. That neighborhood atmosphere is key to its charm, says owner Bob Shearin, who’s worked at Brown-Gardiner since 1972. Over the years, he’s shared birthdays, weddings, and other milestones with his customers. “One lady met two of her husbands here,” he recalls. “Number two and number three. And we had a lady, she came in every Saturday. When she died, they had the reception here.”
— Elizabeth Friend
Brown-Gardiner Drug Co.
2101 North Elm Street
Greensboro, NC 27408
The social scene at Sutton’s has made its soda fountain a hot spot for icy fruit ’ades.
The consistency of the ice is key, says Don Pinney, who owns Sutton’s, and has been serving ’ades for 37 years. “Crushed ice holds all the flavor. It melts and dilutes the sugar, and it really makes it colder,” he says, swirling a ruby-red cherry limeade. “The best thing about it is you get to eat the crushed ice when you’re done.”
The ice tradition goes all the way back to the founding of the store in 1923. Pinney got the recipes from his parents, who began working at Sutton’s in the 1950s. In turn, Pinney has since passed the recipes on to his son.
Although the Sutton’s pharmacy is gone — sold to CVS in 2014 — the food counter and soda fountain are still thriving on East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. “The food became more popular than the Percocets,” Pinney says.
Patrons have responded with gusto. Pinney often updates the menu to suit the changing tastes of UNC students, while holding on to the favorites so beloved by regulars and alumni.
“Ninety-five percent of the people in here, I know their names,” Pinney says. “It’s part of being in the community. Everybody in town comes in here, the officers and firefighters, everybody. It’s like the center of Chapel Hill. The world kind of rotates around Sutton’s.”
Perched nearby on a stool at the counter, John Woodard nods his head in agreement. He ran Sutton’s for 37 years before retiring in 2014. “The most important part has always been the people,” he says. Woodard still visits every day, in search of the same comforts that have drawn loyal customers for decades: friendly smiles, leisurely conversation, a bite to eat, and a tall, icy glass of orangeade.
— Elizabeth Friend
Sutton’s Drug Store
159 East Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Savor the Sweetness
After 100 years, Dees Drug Store in Burgaw is closing. But fans will always remember its soda fountain as one of life’s simple pleasures.
It’s hard to sit at the lunch counter of Dees Drug Store in Burgaw and not crave a root beer float or an ice cream soda. The two soda spouts, their stainless steel gleaming in the fluorescent light, beg to have their draft arms pulled so that the fizz can flow.
But this soda fountain is as idle as a beer tap in a dry county, existing only to quench a thirst for nostalgia. The pumps that squirted the syrups still bear the labels: root beer, wild cherry, vanilla Coke. Customer Greg Fussell, 51, remembers climbing onto a tall chair as a 7-year-old boy, sitting on his heels, and leaning over the counter to marvel at the making of a cherry soda.
“Look how wore out this is,” he says, rubbing his hand on the counter. He scans the syrup dispensers. “I guarantee you can still smell the flavoring in there.”
The compartments that once contained syrups and ice cream now hold ketchup, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, and crackers. Manager Frances Burns, in a pink T-shirt with mirrored sport sunglasses propped on a camouflage cap, has run the lunch counter for 13 years. Every day, she fixes BLTs, egg salad and chicken salad sandwiches, barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs, and orangeades.
“The older ones,” Burns says of her customers, “they will tell you there is nothing better than a fountain drink. She points to the modern fountain machine with name-brand soft drinks — “not this, but the real thing.”
Dees Drug Store, including the soda fountain, opened as a family business on Wright Street in 1916. It occupies a trim brick building with red awning across from the Pender County Courthouse. For much of the 1800s and into the 1960s, soda fountains were a staple in pharmacies and ice cream parlors across America. But with the onset of large national drugstore chains, soda fountains began to fizzle. To find those shiny draft handles, much less a lunch counter, in a drugstore these days is a rare treat.
And it’s getting even rarer. Dees Drug Store has been sold to a small regional company called Value RX and is moving to a new location: the Piggly Wiggly a couple of blocks away. But the new store, expected to open by fall, won’t include the old soda fountain. “We’d like to see someone take it and run with it,” says Dalton Ange, one of the owners of Value RX.
It’s unclear what will become of the fountain, but he says the owners are willing to sell it. “Obviously, it’s a piece of America; it’s a piece of nostalgia. We hate to see it go away, but it really doesn’t fit into our plans.”
“Oh, that was the most popular place you could be.”
Many of the 4,000 or so people in Burgaw can’t help but lament the move, and the loss of the soda fountain. “It really makes you sad to think about that,” says 85-year-old Evelyn Walton, who worked at Dees for 58 years, before retiring in 2010. She started out as a “soda jerk” in 1949, a few months after graduating from high school. Soda jerks were so named because they would pull, or jerk, the soda fountain handles to release the carbonated water.
Through the years, the hands-down favorite treat among patrons was the chocolate ice cream soda. Dees also dished out milkshakes and hot fudge sundaes, orangeades and limeades, banana splits and Cherry Smashes.
“Oh, that was the most popular place you could be,” Walton says of the store. “That was one gathering place, for young and old.”
The soda fountain at Dees delivered its last fizzy indulgence years ago. Modern fountain drink dispensers serve the drinks already carbonated; there’s no need to mix the syrup and carbonated water yourself. Still, displayed on shelves next to the lunch counter, you’ll see empty glass jugs that were once filled with Coke and cherry syrup.
It’s noon on a Wednesday, and a couple is seated at the counter with BLT sandwiches and orangeades. Burns, the manager, is all out of limes and lemons, but she still has a pile of oranges for squeezing and mixing with sugar water.
Regular customers gush about the ’ade drinks — “The orangeade is the best,” says local lawyer Zachary Rivenbark — and it’s hard to pass one up on a warm afternoon. So you go for it. It arrives in a Styrofoam cup with a lid and a straw, and it tastes as sweet as the sunny spring day outside the window.
You savor the sweetness all the more, knowing that the sun is about to set on Dees. “It’s not really the name,” says Rivenbark, who eats lunch here almost every day. “It’s an institution. It’s the building and what it means to this town.”
That any place like this has existed this far into the age of automated soda dispensers and big-name, big-box pharmacies is refreshment in itself. Sitting at the counter, with a checkered tile floor beneath you and a loyal lunch crowd all around, it’s hard not to feel grateful.