I Wanna Be A Soda Jerk
Nickel Sales Just the Tonic for a Soda Fountain’s Revival
By A Sulzberger. NYT
AVA, Mo. — A child takes a stool at a soda fountain, drops a nickel on the counter and orders a chocolate ice cream cone. This nostalgic tableau — backed by ’50s tunes piping out of a jukebox — is fodder for the brush strokes of Norman Rockwell paintings and when-I-was-your-age stories spun by grandparents.
But it also comes to life here at Ava Drug, where pocket change still goes a long way.
A nickel buys a scoop of ice cream, a soda or a cup of coffee. And each afternoon the place fills with the frenetic chatter of students arriving for their daily overdose of sugar and the clang of an antique cash register. Haley Barker, a high school freshman whose $1-a-week allowance is barely dented by her sweet tooth, said she found this retro-pricing “totally normal.”
There is, of course, a story behind how nickel ice cream returned to this hamlet of 3,000 in the Ozarks. That was the price when Ava Drug first opened in 1950 just off the town square, complete, like many pharmacies of the day, with a soda fountain. But within a few years the price jumped to a dime, and it continued its long climb from there.
David Norman, whose father and grandfather started the business, eventually tore out the soda fountain, a money loser that he believed detracted from the core business. The pharmacy was a sleepier place afterward, and he sold the business in 1991.
But almost a decade ago, Mr. Norman, more sentimental with the years, bought it back and set about re-creating, as faithfully as possible, the soda fountain that dominated the memories of his youth.
The nickel prices were introduced as a short-term gimmick to draw traffic. But they filled the place with energy and gave customers a reason to ignore the Wal-Mart that had eroded other local businesses, so the discount remained. One regular thanked Mr. Norman as he walked out earlier this month: “I can’t make coffee for a nickel a cup.”
Indeed, no one can. The soda fountain, staffed by four full-time employees, collects $300 a day. Every ice cream tub ($23 wholesale) brings in less than $5. There is also basic lunch fare — the cost of a tuna sandwich rose this week to $3.25 — but it doesn’t make up for all the discounts.
“It’s not breaking even, not close to it, but our prescription department carries it,” said Mr. Norman, 69, who sold the store to a national chain three years ago but continues as manager with a free hand to run it the way he wants as long as it makes money.
In recent years, the store has become something of a tourist attraction — albeit one far off the beaten path. But mostly Ava Drug is filled with regulars, many old enough to have been among its very first customers decades ago.
Among them was Jerry Lansdown, 69, enjoying an afternoon snack with a friend. And sitting right behind him was a woman, Sandra Phelps, 70, he had not seen since the last time ice cream was a nickel. He didn’t recognize her at first, but sure enough, they had gone to school together until she moved out of town. As teenagers, they had sat together sipping sodas in this very spot. They caught up and commented on how much had changed with the years.