A Turn-Of-The-Century Soda Fountain Whips Up Crowds
Feature Article in 34th Street Magazine - February 28, 2008
The small shop stands beyond the looming shadows of turquoise-glass
skyscrapers, sheltered in the anachronistic Old City Philadelphia that
preserves an America we only recognize as novelty - an America paved
with cobblestone and filled with the faint aroma of manure from horse
and buggies circling Independence Mall. Walking from Penn's Landing on
the Delaware River, past America's oldest candy shop and a trendy night
club, its sign becomes visible: the logo of a man dressed in a white
long-sleeved button down shirt and apron, a red crown askew atop his
bald head, pouring a red concoction from a steel mixing cup to a glass.
The Franklin Fountain beckons you to step back in time for a quick
children crave desserts, but only rarely will an insatiable sweet tooth
inspire a career in banana splits and chocolate milkshakes. For Ryan
and Eric Berley, their decision to open a soda fountain was inspired by
an unconventional upbringing. The Berley brothers were raised in an
outdated Victorian farmhouse just outside Philadelphia. The dining room
resembled an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, with marble tabletops,
stained glass lamps and wire-back chairs, all surrounded by countless
collectibles from their mother's antique business. With an
understanding of economics beyond standard commercial marketing, the
Berley brothers decided to model The Franklin Fountain after the
thousands of soda fountains once scattered across America over a
century ago - honest and intimate.
"We just want simpler days,
when you knew your food's sourcing and where you're buying it from,"
Eric says, 27. "We're half crazy, but we also recognized that the area
needed a good dessert spot, a place to get ice cream, soda, good
service and a really neat experience rooted in the history of the
building - something that would have been here."
four-story building at the corner of Market and South Letitia Streets
was erected in 1897, its narrow, elongated space was suitable for a
bar, which is exactly what operated on its first level for many years.
Several decades later, new tenants converted the barroom into
Eroticakes - the everyday source for pornographic baked goods and (not
necessarily literally) hard-core candies. Barhopping with buddies one
night, Ryan stumbled upon the smut bakery and noticed a "For Sale" sign
in the window. Armed with his knowledge of antiquing, he says he could
look past the merchandise and see the building for its intrinsic value:
unpainted American chestnut woodworking, porcelain mosaic-tiled floors
and tin ceilings. Considering an independent business venture, Ryan,
31, with his family's help, gathered the necessary funds for the real
estate investment in 2001.
For some time, the thought of founding a vintage turn-of-the-century
soda fountain existed only far outside the realm of imagination. Ryan,
taller than his brother and with short brown hair and a clean-shaven
face, had followed his mother into the antiquing business, and was
trading and consulting to Freeman's Auction House when he discovered
the building. Meanwhile, Eric, with a smaller build and a moustache,
was still a student at William and Mary majoring in philosophy. With
one brother seeking new work and the other seeking any work at all, the
idea came to them in 2003. The long, narrow space, the way customers
would flow along the counter, from order to pickup to exit, the
woodworking and décor, the historical aura - the building would be
perfect for a soda fountain.
just looked like a soda fountain to us," Eric says, now an expert soda
jerk - the job title used to describe those working the soda fountain
counter, "jerk" derived from the jerking motion used to extract soda
from the fountain. He shows off a wood-framed black-and-white snapshot
of an old ice cream parlor - one of many the brothers have acquired in
the past few years through their travels and off eBay. Sitting in his
new fourth-floor office, recently converted from an apartment after the
tenant's lease expired, the younger Berley explains the photograph like
He points out the ice cream takeout containers in
the background, the type The Franklin Fountain uses today but most
people would associate with Chinese takeout boxes. He motions towards
the Hire's Root Beer barrel in the foreground, the original root beer
invented by Philadelphia pharmacist, Charles E. Hires - the same type
of barrel that will hold The Franklin Fountain's new homemade root beer
this coming summer. He notes the female soda jerks, disproving the
general perception that the profession was reserved for males. Finally
he highlights the soda fountain apparatus itself, its marble base with
an ornate lamp on top, the design typical to fountains used between
1900 and 1905.
Within a week of conceiving the idea of the old-fashioned ice cream
parlor, the Berley brothers bought a soda fountain apparatus off eBay
that is similar to the one in the photograph. Using it as the
"centerpiece of the business concept," Ryan and Eric set out across the
country, learning the trade of ice cream making, visiting other soda
fountains and attending ice cream conventions. They delved into soda
fountain culture, studying thousands of recipes and the evolution of
you get into [soda fountain history], it is fascinating," Eric says,
flipping through two decrepit books of soda and sundae recipes. "You
get into American sociology and marketing at the turn of the century.
It's a neat historical approach in terms of getting into business."
The Franklin Fountain opened during the last week of summer in 2004,
the particular decorations have varied, but the general atmosphere
retains the Old American aura. The wooden door opens to an
antique-adorned paradise of sugars and sweets. Inside there are menus
lined along the marble countertop, a centerpiece soda fountain,
souvenir postcards, brands of gum most grandparents chewed as children,
homemade fudge (packaged by Franklin Ice Cream, Est. 2006), a bulky
metal cash register from an era before credit cards and a ceramic water
Behind the bar stands a large wooden cabinet with a
bust of Benjamin Franklin sitting on top. Twenty-five glass bottles of
oddly flavored sodas - rose, peppermint, ginger - are displayed on
shelves, bookended by milkshake cups and plates fit for a dining room.
Two-armed wooden fans spin lazily above; glass vats are displayed in
windows high above aged, round wooden tables with chairs to match.
Various odds and ends hang on the walls: crossing rally pennants with
the letters "FF" sewn in, an old-fashioned red fire bucket (obscuring
the modern-day fire alarm), various paintings, a framed picture of
Franklin with the company motto. Toward the back stands an antique
scale, inviting customers to weigh in (before indulging, presumably)
for just a penny.
"Everything was a lot more beautiful, decorative and in front of
customers," Ryan says of the old soda fountains that his own emulates.
"We're interested in bringing stuff out to the general public. We are
making it more of a performance art."
performance used to be a two-man show. Working as a superhuman duo, the
Berley brothers say they thought they could do everything in the
beginning. Ryan focused on formulating the drink recipes: sodas and
shakes and phosphates and rickeys. Eric invented ice cream flavors and
sundae combinations. Both filled the orders, did the dishes and managed
But they weren't entirely on their own. "Certainly
Mom and Dad had the first banana split in the store," says Eric. "Mom
used to do dishes. Dad was the cashier. They were our first employees.
They were right there behind us, very supportive, very proud and
helpful in a lot of ways."
Three years later, Ryan and Eric head
a staff of 20. Dressed in traditional attire - black or white
button-down shirts with aprons to match - the soda jerks exhibit, if
nothing else, an immense knowledge of their trade's history. One Sunday
afternoon, when a customer asked an employee to explain a Hydrox, the
employee responded without even referring to the menu. "Hydrox is
actually the original Oreo," she said. "The company started four years
before Oreo. And they are kosher, too."
The menu provides
paragraphs of clever description and historical tidbits for each
homemade sundae invention. The text beneath Stock Market Crunch (Rocky
Road ice cream smothered with peanut butter sauce and crumbled salt
pretzels) tells the story of Rocky Road, how William Dreyer and Joseph
Edy concocted it in 1929 to make people smile as the country headed
into the Great Depression.
"We love variety. But there are so many options that nobody wants to
make a decision because they don't want to make the wrong decision,"
Eric says, pointing at a shelf of 48 exotic sodas in upstairs storage.
"We can't change recipes because people get really attached. Once you
have it, you want it there the next time."
For this reason, The Franklin Fountain has a constant menu, as opposed
to introducing new creations every month. "For me, every flavor is a
way of advancing to make it more perfect," Eric says. Experimenting in
a small production room less than 20 blocks north of the shop, the
brothers are in perpetual pursuit of perfection, pouring over books and
exchanging techniques with other ice cream makers. On a recent "soda
fountain road trip" through the Midwest, the Berley brothers learned
that, rather than using pure chocolate, a softer chocolate chip can be
made by pouring slightly warmed melted chocolate into the ice cream
machine, thereby retaining more flavor.
the hard work has paid off quickly. Once word spread across the city,
the line at the shop spilled onto the sidewalk, often wrapping around
the corner. Philadelphia Magazine awarded The Franklin Fountain its
"Best of Philly" ice cream honors in 2006. Now the Berley brothers have
entered the world of catering, working everything from weddings to
birthdays to fraternity rush events. (Full Disclosure: the author of
this article belongs to Sigma Alpha Mu, a fraternity that patronizes
Noah Weiss, a junior at Penn, belongs to
Sigma Nu, a fraternity that hired The Franklin Fountain for a rush
event last spring. "We thought of Franklin Fountain because it's
quickly become a favorite of many Penn students," he says. "Even though
it's downtown, [the ice cream] is worth the cab ride."
of tourists and schoolchildren have even begun requesting tours. "We're
always saying yes to people so it expands my mind," Eric says in his
office, holding up a large white calendar showing a completely booked
month. Boxes of menus, catering brochures and business cards sit on the
shelf in front of him. He says he hopes to finally hire a manager
within the next year. "I'm not worried about getting too big, just
staying sane. You can only move so fast and the business is hard to
keep up with."
Staying open through the winter for the first
time this year, albeit only on weekends and holidays, the Berley
brothers have expanded their line of homemade sweets. Aside from hot
fudge and root beer, the Franklin soda jerks now produce their own line
of hard candies in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes.
of the fact that the soda fountain community is dwindling, with no more
than a couple hundred shops nationwide, its members are intensely
passionate, the brothers say. "When you get to have fun, the staff gets
to have fun and the customer gets to have fun," Eric says.
And that is a good thing, because "we're in it for life," Ryan says.