Serving memories is what they do best at the Old Town Slidell Soda Shop just outside of New Orleans. But after disasterous Hurricane Katrina damage, that mission was sidelined for awhile.
Recreating a Piece of His Childhood
Frank Jackson started the soda shop in Slidell, Louisiana, in the late 1980s. He remembered as a kid hanging out at pharmacy soda fountains, like Waterbury’s Drug Store at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans, and was inspired to recreate that childhood setting. Beginning with a 1955 model Bastian Blessing stainless steel fountain — the type that dispenses soda water out of gooseneck heads — he converted a World War I-era building in Slidell, on the suburban side of Lake Pontchartrain, into a classic, Eisenhower-era luncheonette.
Learning the Trade and the Tradition
Jackson knew little about the business — and had never made an ice-cream soda before. But thanks to patient and loyal clientele and a lot of research, he has become a world-renowned keeper of the soda shop tradition.
“I decided if we were going to do it, it should be more historically correct,” he says.
Jackson quickly found out that old-school soda jerking was a calling. “A first-class soda jerk working in New York in 1919 commanded a salary of 40 dollars per week,” Jackson quotes from one of his reference books. “A licensed pharmacist working at a chain drug store was paid 50 dollars a week. The fact that a full-time soda jerk could earn 80 percent of a pharmacist’s salary was a clear indication of their importance to the drug store.”
Indeed, Jackson requires his dozen or so young soda jerks to do more than wear the traditional white caps and aprons and sling ice cream.
“The younger people coming in, they learn their first basic job skills here,” he says. “And every one of them comes in here thinking, ‘Oh, who can’t scoop ice cream?’” But, notes Jackson, “if you look at the history of soda fountain and soda jerking, there used to be an apprenticeship program. I mean, it would take you a couple of years to ever get to the point to being able to serve sodas, to where they’d turn you loose and let you do it on your own. “
Getting It Right
While Frank’s training schedule takes weeks, not years, it does require his employees to know life skills like basic math. They also have to learn the nuts-and-bolts behind the homemade sandwiches, milk shakes, malts and ice cream specialties on the menu — as well as how to prepare the shop’s very popular, premium, fountain-prepared Coca-Cola served in the classic, bottle-green Coca-Cola glasses.
“That’s the whole appeal to it,” he says. “The classic green glass with the Coca-Cola writing on it. We also use flaked ice, we don’t use cubes. And with that soda water and syrup sprayed into it, the customers watch it all. Part of it is the show; they can’t believe we’re doing all of that in front of them.”
Sidelined for Years By the Storm
Everything changed, however in 2005 – when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and destroyed the soda shop in Slidell. Jackson went back to construction work in New Orleans and elsewhere. But when a casino in Mississippi offered to sell him — at a good price — the furniture, machinery and hardware needed repair the soda shop, he knew he needed to get back into the business.
In the meantime, Jackson has also gone into the consulting business, helping individuals, pharmacies, restaurants and others create their own old-style soda fountains.
“I got a lady right now in Guam who wants to build the island’s first soda fountain,” he says. “She plans on coming in. I have people come in from all over. I teach them the basics.”
Doing things the old way takes time, and requires long hours from both Jackson and his employees. But since their reopening, “there’s never been a day when somebody hasn’t walked into this place and thanked me for being here,” he says. “Especially since the storm, people are just so happy I’m here.”
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