Fountains of Our Youth: N.C. Drugstore Soda Shops Worth a Visit
We all know that everything changes – well, almost everything. Here are three long-standing drugstore soda shops with a recipe for lasting success.
Ashworth Drugs, Cary
When Paul Ashworth’s parents, Ralph and Daphne, bought the former Adams Drug Co. on U.S. Route 1 in 1957, the population of Cary was only about 3,000, the drugstore stood at the only stoplight in town and there were no interstates in the region.
“Anyone traveling from New York to Florida would literally have to come right by our store,” says Ashworth, who grew up cleaning shelves, ordering merchandise and working at the soda fountain. “At that time, we sold bus tickets, train tickets. Banks didn’t have ATM machines, so every Saturday people would line up to cash personal checks so they’d have spending money for the weekend.” By default, his father became the unofficial town ambassador.
Ralph is now semiretired and Daphne passed away last year. But Ashworth and his long-term business partner Cori Strickland have continued the legacy, greeting customers by name, answering the phone themselves and stocking special merchandise on request.
The old-fashioned soda fountain, which serves lunch and after-school treats, has become even more of a community gathering spot since Ashworth added five more booths to the original four, switched to a kelly-green theme to reflect the colors of Cary High School and the town of Cary and designated a VIP booth that can be reserved for business meetings and family get-togethers. Commemorative seats are dedicated to a former mayor, a former employee and a longtime customer. There’s even a stool named for a 99-year-old patron who comes in every morning.
New weekly ice cream flavors delight guests along with mainstays like strawberry and butter pecan. And the fresh-squeezed orangeade and lemonade are always popular in summer. But it’s the hot dogs, primarily the bright red Jesse Jones brand the soda shop has served from the beginning, that have drawn kudos from publications statewide. Although Ashworth Drugs now offers pork, beef and veggie dogs, Ashworth remains nostalgic.
“I eat hot dogs here myself three times a week,” he says. “And I always have the red dogs.”
Smith’s Drugs, Forest City
At Smith’s Drugs of Forest City, Susan Stewart often sees older customers who remember gathering at the soda fountain after school when they were teens.
“They would sit in the booths with their friends and get French fries and sodas,” says Stewart, fountain manager at Smith’s. “Now they bring their grandkids in to show them where they used to hang out when they were kids.”
The full-service neighborhood drugstore, which started as City Cut Rate Drug in 1939, celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. Stewart refers to the local landmark as the town’s cornerstone.
“It’s been kind of the groove that has held everybody together for a long time,” she says. “This is definitely the longest-running business in Forest City.”
One secret to the drugstore’s longevity is its customer service. “When you drive across the county line, it says ‘Small Town Friendly,’ ” Stewart says. “Well, we take that up a couple notches.”
The soda shop, which has retained its “Meet Me at Smith’s Drugs Fountain” slogan and still sells a cup of coffee for 45 cents at breakfast, is a big draw, too. As part of a major remodel when John Higgins bought Smith’s in 2000, the fountain now offers 19 red-and-tan vinyl booths and nine tables.
When she arrived in 2007, Stewart updated the menu with Blue Plate specials, healthy dishes and specialty sandwiches like the Hooty Who Ham Club, named after the local Owls baseball team, and the Burnt Chimney Beef, which reflects Forest City’s original name. The homemade pimento cheese has put them on the map, Stewart says, noting kudos in Southern Living and Our State magazines.
And then there are the sweet treats, from fried pound cake to hand-dipped milkshakes. Stewart especially loves the orange freeze, which tastes like an old-timey orange push-up. “It’s pretty darn yummy,” she says.
“People just love coming in and seeing how quickly the food comes out,” Stewart adds. “[The staff] laugh and cut up. It’s really like you get a floor show with your food.”
Newton Grove Drug Co., Newton Grove
Thomas Williford was just 15 years old when he asked Archie Parrish, who had opened Newton Grove Drug Co. Soda Fountain & Gift Shop in 1952, if he could do an internship there while he finished high school and pharmacy college. For a while, it was the only air-conditioned building in town.
After working for Parrish for 10 years, Williford bought the business in 1973. His son Joey now works with him in the pharmacy.
Newton Grove Drug, which sits on the town’s traffic circle, still prides itself on going the extra mile and spending extra time with customers. “We are more than a pharmacy,” Williford says. “We are a family as far as our employees are concerned. Our customers see that and as a result, we developed a lot of loyalty with the business.”
From the start, in an era when an ice cream cone was a luxurious dessert, the soda fountain was a big hit. It still is. “We have the best milkshakes in North Carolina,” says Williford, whose personal favorite is an old-fashioned chocolate sundae with vanilla ice cream smothered in Hershey’s chocolate syrup, topped with wet nuts and a cherry.
Although, the drugstore’s soda fountain is a “grab and go” spot. “Some of the older people will get their serving of ice cream, milkshake, lemonade, and come sit in the pharmacy area where we’re working,” Williford says. “And that’s quite all right.”
Some customers order the same flavor – black cherry, banana pudding, Rocky Road – at every visit. Many bring their grandchildren to get ice cream at the counter where they were served when they were little.
The soda shop is so beloved, Williford says, that during a couple of renovations, customers worriedly asked, “You’re not going to take out the fountain, are you?”
“We get so many compliments on the soda fountain from people who are traveling and stop by,” he says. “It’s a good calling card for our business.”
Float Your Boat
Plan a summer road trip to visit several old-fashioned drugstores around the state
105 West Chatham Street, Cary
2101 North Elm Street, Greensboro
Central Drug Store
112 West Virginia Avenue, Bessemer City
Newton Grove Drug Co.
305 Weeks Circle, Newton Grove
139 East Main Street, Forest City
– Nancy Henderson