Call anyone under 40 a “soda jerk” and you’re likely to get a puzzled look as they determine if they should take offense. In fact, when I first visited Hill’s Pharmacy upon moving to Easton several years ago, I thought it was the strangest phenomenon to find a café in the back of a pharmacy. “This can’t be good for business,” I thought, “Who would want to eat in the back of a pharmacy?” Apparently, a lot of people did. Hill’s Soda Fountain and Café has been in some form of existence since 1928. Historically, soda fountains played an important role for communities, providing a public space in which people could gather, share news, and socialize—all in the back of a pharmacy. When I found out new owners were taking over this vestige of the past, I wondered why. Could Hill’s Soda Fountain and Café really compete with coffee shops and eateries, the new soda fountains of today?
“Ding, ding!” the short order bell calls out to Anna, my server, signaling her order is up. She swings around the counter and refills a soda before picking up checker-lined baskets of food. Her sister-in-law, Jennifer McCrea, together with local baker, Pam Zak, are in the kitchen, happily preparing dishes they know their diners are going to love. Jen and Pam recently took over Easton’s well-known Hill’s Soda Fountain and Café with hopes of giving Eastonians what they really want: homemade food that’s consistently delicious. “My work in the food service industry took me to different restaurants everyday,” Jen tells me. “The ones that are successful are the ones you can count on having delicious food every time. It’s simple.”
No major renovations or changes in décor point to new ownership, but as I look around the café, there is a different feel. Today, the diner is sunny and bright thanks to the skylight letting in the noonday sun. Seven vintage counter stools line the original soda counter complete with an ice cream case topped with jars of sweets, including death-by-chocolate brownies. I make a mental note to order one to go. I could die happy eating a brownie.
Anna drops off my appetizer, a basket of onion petals, perfectly bite-sized, lightly breaded and fried in a vegetable-only deep fryer. Debating between a hearty steak and Brie sandwich or fresh salad, I notice the special board includes a buffalo chicken tender salad with blue cheese dressing. That’s it! I think. The quality of a salad can tell a lot about a place.
“Who made the steak sandwich?” I hear another customer ask Anna. “It was fantastic!” she exclaims.
“And my tuna was grilled perfectly,” her husband chimes in.
“Great, I’ll let Pam know you liked it,” Anna replies while removing their finished meals.
The din of the restaurant picks up with a raucous laugh from a dad in the far booth. He’s clearly enjoying lunch out with his wife and daughter, who are sharing what looks like a tasty strawberry milkshake. Soon, the place will be offering Milkshake Happy Hours, a great incentive to swing by after picking up the kids from school. Pam is also famous for her specialty cakes and cupcakes, perfect for birthdays and other events.
“Say,” a man at a nearby table signals for our attention. “Did you hear about the fire that burned down the gas station on 50?” No one in the vicinity had, so we listen eagerly to the details, everyone clearly concerned.
My salad arrives. Three lightly breaded chicken tenders top a balanced portion of crisp green lettuce, cherry tomatoes, carrots, and red onions. On the side is chunky blue cheese dressing I could eat alone, nothing like the watery salad dressings you sometimes see in other places. My chicken is not only organic, but it’s also juicy and tangy from a hint of buffalo sauce. All the elements come together making one perfect salad, and by the last bite I’m satisfied rather than stuffed.
I order my brownie to go and survey the café. Jen is right about a restaurant’s success; you do need to provide delicious food consistently. But I have a feeling that Hill’s Soda Fountain and Café will be successful not only for their tasty meals, but for their ability to bring to life this relic of the past. A place to come and be with the community, enjoying great food, sharing news, and socializing—who knew you could do all this in the back of a pharmacy?
And if you’re willing to put soda jerk on your resume, Hill’s Soda Fountain and Café is hiring waitstaff.