Pop! Goes the soda shop

JEFF STRICKLER | Updated 2/7/2013

A half-century after their heyday, soda fountain drinks are making a comeback.

Lynden's Soda Fountain in St. Paul
Jim Gehrz

Old-fashioned sodas are the hottest thing in cold drinks.

Buoyed by an appetite for everything retro and bolstered by demand for anti-artificial ingredients, handcrafted soft drinks are turning up on menus across the Twin Cities, from small ice cream shops to popular bars. Featuring ingredients that are fresh, seasonal and local, these sodas, phosphates and egg creams are offering unusual and often surprising flavors.

An egg cream featuring Minnesota maple syrup, anyone? How about homemade root beer? Or a cola replicating a pre-1900 formula? (Actually, that cola recipe was adjusted slightly when it was discovered that the original concoction contained cocaine, which at the time was thought to be harmless.)

The reception among the soda-sipping public has been enthusiastic.

“If we tried to take them off the menu, we’d have people throwing torches through our windows,” said Nick Kosevich, a partner in Eat Street Social in south Minneapolis and the bartender responsible for creating the restaurant’s drink recipes.

Kosevich considers the drinks a cousin of the modern-day cocktail. Bartenders hand-mix each soda from scratch, adding carefully measured syrups, creams, bitters and carbonated water, which also is made on-site rather than coming from a compressed tank.

Compared with mixing a cocktail, the outcome is different, he said, “but the process is the same.”

Eat Street Social started offering the sodas when it opened a year ago, in hopes of broadening its reach beyond the bar crowd.

“We wanted to get some families in here, and we’re open for lunch” when many people refrain from drinking, Kose­vich said. “Plus, we’re finding that a lot of people who want the bar experience don’t want to drink alcohol all night. They might have a couple of drinks and then switch to sodas.”

Although it’s been open only a couple of weeks and it bills itself primarily as a craft beer destination, Dangerous Man Brewing Co. in northeast Minneapolis also has found an eager market for soft drinks. It dispenses three special soft drinks from a separate tap tower that sets them apart from the beer.

“We’ve sold a lot more of them that I thought we would,” said founder and head brewer Rob Miller. “It’s been a big draw for us.”

At Lynden’s Soda Fountain in St. Paul, customers are getting a side order of nostalgia with their drinks. Owners John and Tobi Lynden are offering retro-style sodas that are served from a refurbished 1950s soda fountain by clerks wearing shirts labeled “Jerk.” It’s not an appraisal of their personality, but rather a reference to the classic soda jerk, who got the label from yanking the soda dispenser handle.

“I’ve always been an old-timey kind of guy,” said John Lynden, who modeled the shop after mid-century ice cream shops. Racks of vintage candy line the wall opposite the soda fountain counter.

“When I found a 1950s soda fountain for sale, I became determined to do something crazy,” he said. “Life is so rushed these days. I want people who come in here to slow down a bit, to sit at the counter and get that experience back.”

But when it comes to serving up soda history, nobody in town — and few places in the country — can top the St. Paul Corner Drug, where owner John Hoeschen likes to stick with tradition. The store is still selling phosphates from the soda fountain that has been there since it opened in 1922.

Longtime favorite

Soda fountains thrived in the first half of the 20th century. Soda water was thought to have health benefits, which is why the fountains started in drugstores. But it wasn’t long before they were popping up everywhere and expanding their offerings to include quick, light meals of burgers and sandwiches.