The search for a business era that is quickly disappearing
I’m a sucker for small, businesses.
I should know, I’m of one. Two, actually. My father opened Heron’s Cut Rate in North East, Md., in 1947. It was a classic, old-fashioned soda fountain and luncheonette that also sold a variety of patent medicines. It’s still the only place I’ve seen where women could get their “special need” items wrapped in white apothecary paper.
But the star of this store was its soda fountain. That’s where my father created something called “The Pink Mountain.” It consists of milk, strawberry syrup and a dash of soda water for fizz. Dad, like many at the time, had an inkling that sodas were linked to that great bane of the teen years – zits. He decided to come up with a substitute. The Pink Mountain is still sold in North East today.
Heron’s Cut Rate, however, is long gone. But not before it spawned a spinoff. In 1954 my mother and father opened Heron’s in our home town of Oxford, Pa. Dad was looking to replicate the soda shop atmosphere that proved successful in North East.
But the real secret to Heron’s was its location. It was a block away from the high school, and immediately became a favorite hangout for kids after school.
It was there that I mastered that gleaming, stainless steel soda fountain, and what I refer to as the “Magic of the Cherry Coke.”
Three squirts of that glorious Coke syrup, two squirts of cherry syrup, soda water (drawn from the fountain, not from a bottle.) Served over ice in an authentic Coke glass. Stir. Serve. A little slice of heaven. And it cost 10 cents. Cherry Ginger Ale was a familyowned product even cheaper, you’d get three cents change back from your dime. And the house specialty was root beer - drawn from an authentic root beer barrel - in a frosted mug. That would set you back a nickel.
You’d be amazed at the different concoctions you could whip up at that fountain, including Lemon Cokes, Vanilla Cokes, even Chocolate Cokes. We did all varieties of Sundaes, served in glass dishes.
By the way, every one of those Coke glasses, banana float and Sundae dishes was washed by hand in scalding hot water. I think my hands still have blisters to prove it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those kinds of small businesses recently. Just this past week we marked the anniversary of the first patent being granted for a soda fountain. I posted that on Facebook, along with a photo of the inside of my parents’ store in Oxford, including that counter where I served all those Cherry Cokes.
As it does every time I post something about those “magical” days, it sparked an avalanche of memories.
I am guessing the people who patronized a couple of similar family businesses here in Delaware County are feeling the same way these days. We are losing two more icons. Joseph D. Doubet jewelry store has graced State Street Media for 25 years.
The Riddle Ale House has been a mainstay on Baltimore Pike in Middletown even longer.
The Doubet family didn’t look on the people who walked in the door as customers; they were family.
The Pompei family did the same, sandwiched between Riddle Hospital and Granite Run in Mall. They outlived the mall, and are still there even as the Promenade at Granite Run rises in its place.
But not for much longer. The family will close the place this week. Thankfully, they will be offering those roast beef sandwiches at a new establishment slated to open in Media.
Running one of these small, family-owned enterprises is no walk in the park. I know. I’ve been there.
The writing was on the wall for places like Heron’s when business changed. Suddenly such small-time operations were no longer a novelty, they were an aggravation.
The companies that supplied the ingredients that made the place famous informed my mother that making a stop for such a small operation was no longer worth their time. If we could not place a minimum order, they would no longer deliver the syrup, meats and ice cream that were the backbone of the place.
My mother, ever the entrepreneur, outsmarted them – at least for awhile. She pooled resources with other small mom-and-pop operations in town to place orders, then literally cut up some of the meats and other items and split them up among the businesses. For some reason I don’t think Wawa has that problem.
I call it the Walmart-ization American business.
And make no mistake, comes with a price.
Places like Doubet and the Ale House offer something you don’t get at a mall, or one of the national chains of jewelry stores or eateries.
And it’s certainly not something you get at Walmart.
At places like Doubet’s and the Riddle Ale House, you get family.
Joe and Joyce Doubet it of always understood that. So did Arnold Pompei. “We developed relationships,” Joyce Doubet said of the family jewelry business. “You get to know the customer’s style, what they like. And they get to know us.”
It’s a sentiment shared just a few miles farther out Baltimore Pike, where the Pompei family fed several generations with a legendary roast beef sandwich that people would drive miles to enjoy.
When we lose businesses like Doubet’s and the Riddle Ale House, we lose a part of what makes us a community.
It’s people who know your name when you walk in the door. They are your neighbors. And friends. After all, that is their name on the sign outside. That is their “signature” on every one of those roast beef sandwiches, every one of those pieces of jewelry destined to be family heirlooms.
I think my mom and dad understood “family,” probably a lot better than they ever understood.
Every day after school, and after athletic practice, kids would walk the block from the school to Heron’s. Maybe they would have a Cherry Coke, or a frosted mug of root beer.
But they also wanted to do something else. All those kids who lived outside town wanted to use the phone to call home and alert their needed a ride.
That’s right. No pay phone. Mom wouldn’t hear of it. These were all “her” kids. They lined up at the end of the counter and used the business phone. I still remember the phone number. I’m sure they did, too.
Mom and dad were not business barons. They ran a family business. One that had their name on it. And one that remains a fond memory of every kid who grew up in that town.
Much as I’m sure generations will remember Doubet’s and the Riddle Ale House.
It’s what I like to refer to as “the magic of the Cherry Coke.” It was different time, a different world.
It is the hunt for something that is not there anymore. We are losing two more The will be missed. Farewell, Doubet’s, State Street won’t be the same.
Neither will Baltimore Pike out in front of Granite Run.
Anybody know where you can get a decent fountain Coke these days? parents they icons.
The soda fountain 1960’s. inside Heron’s in Oxford, Pa., in a scene from the