Learn from the Soda Fountain Pros Gia Giasullo & Peter Freeman
Gia Giasullo and Peter Freeman are the sister/brother duo who not only restored an authentic 1920s pharmacy, the Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, but they literally wrote the book. The Soda Fountain: Floats, Sundaes, Egg Creams & More–Stories and Flavors of an American Original covers not only the nostalgic recipes that harken back decades past, but also takes on a journey. Soda fountains have roots in classic pharmacies, surged in popularity during Prohibition and then began to fade away as sodas and ice creams became easy to find and purchase in grocery stores and even vending machines. Thanks to intrepid business owners like Gia and Peter the soda fountain and its culture is experiencing a renaissance.
Dédé Wilson: Gia and Peter, tell us how you became fascinated with the history of the soda fountain.
Gia Giasullo and Peter Freeman: We didn’t walk into this business with some deep knowledge of the history of soda fountains. We just knew we loved them and that we didn’t see too many of them around anymore. But from the moment we opened, the stories poured in from our customers. They told us about fathers who were soda jerks, grandparents who had met at a soda fountain, and all about the soda fountains of their childhood. These rich and personal accounts are what drew us in and made us curious about the history of this fascinating American institution.
Why do you think soda fountains are experiencing a renaissance now?
It strikes us as funny that alongside the boom of social media and tech toys, is a renaissance of all things ‘made by hand’. The reemergence of the soda fountain is happening alongside Etsy, artisanal small batch food, and local farmer’s markets. People see the soda fountain not just as a place to devour treats, but a place to watch things being made before your eyes.
Soda fountains, which at one time graced almost every main street in America, served a purpose for the community as a multi-generational watering hole. People come into the soda fountain now, as they did then, to enjoy each other’s company almost as much as to enjoy an ice cream. We think the fountain’s easy social atmosphere has always been a large appeal of the soda fountain.
What is an oldy that is popular with your customers? What about a newfangled creation?
Our egg cream is one of the most talked about item in our soda fountain. It’s a simple drink: just syrup, seltzer and milk but the debates about its name, its origin and its recipe are complicated.
In regards to newfangled, we’ve put our own twist to several fountain favorites. We particularly love the Mr. Potato Head. Originally created as a Father’s Day Special, it contains vanilla ice cream, hot caramel, fresh whipped cream and a bag of salty chips from North Fork Potato in Long Island, NY. It’s crazy good and it has never left our menu.
Tell us about the social aspect of the soda fountain.
What a job we have! We’ve had people marry, get engaged and celebrate 70th birthdays at the fountain. Friends meet at the fountain. Grandkids bring in visiting grandparents. Dads sneak their kids in for ice cream for breakfast while mom sleeps. We’re graced with first dates, blind dates and surprise parties. You get the picture. Our friends complain that we don’t socialize enough, but truth be told, we spend almost all day socializing!
From sodas featuring syrups flavored with hibiscus flowers to mead, your customers seem to be the adventurous type. Was there a flavor combo you tried that just didn’t work?
There’s been no complete flop that ever made it as far as a printed menu, but we do like to test the boundaries of how far people will venture out of their sweet comfort zone. Case in point is last summer when beets were in full season, Pete created the ‘Just Beet It’ Sundae. It was made with a sweet beet compote and vanilla ice cream and garnished with fresh mint. It didn’t totally fly off the menu –most people were not willing to take the risk —but the people who ordered it, yes sir, they really enjoyed it.
Give us some insider tips on how to “hang” a scoop of ice cream!
You’ll have to read the book for the full how to, but here’s one important tip: Make sure your scoop is tight. If it’s a loose scoop it will collapse when you hang it on the rim of the glass.
Is there anything else you would like to add that you think is interesting or pertinent to The Soda Fountain story…
Yes. The glass factor. We serve everything in glass. We have the egg cream glass, the soda float glass, the beehive sundae bowls and the banana boat glass. Look around, when’s the last time you were served ice cream in a fluted glass unless you were at a restaurant? Truth is, eating ice cream out of glass is an expensive business, and we think it’s one of the reasons soda fountains fell into decline. The cost of running glass – from breakage to washing to the dishwasher’s salary is a serious consideration for an old time soda fountain like ours. That said, when we talk about having the experience of the soda fountain being more than a gastronomic one, glassware is part of that experience. There’s nothing like hanging a scoop of ice cream on the side of a fluted glass, nothing like building up a fresh whipped cream tower on top of a scoop of ice cream in a beehive bowl. And you know what? There’s nothing prettier, in our eyes, then a licked clean glass bowl. Worth every penny.
Thank you both! I loved reading The Soda Fountain book and diving into the history; now I am off to get my glassware ready and we will be presenting your Betty Boop float recipe.