Downtown Lawrence to get an old-fashioned soda fountain as part of major building renovation

photo by: Nick Krug

Mass Street Soda store manager Maren Ludwig stocks the selection of root beer on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, at the shop's temporary location, 935 Massachusetts St. The store has relocated while its building in the 1100 block of Massachusetts Street undergoes a renovation.

Perhaps soon there will be brown and black cows in downtown Lawrence. Or maybe a hokie pokie cooler or a lime Ricky. If you have any idea what I’m talking about, you perhaps have spent some time being a jerk — a soda jerk, that is.

Brown and black cows, hokie pokie coolers and lime Rickys are all examples of soda recipes that were served at old-fashioned soda counters that were manned by “soda jerks” who made the concoctions by jerking on the shiny soda fountain handle. In the 1940s and 1950s, nearly every town had at least one of the soda fountains and a cadre of soda jerks to go with them. Today, both soda and jerks are still prevalent, but the combination somehow has faded away.

But, soon enough, downtown Lawrence will have an old-fashioned soda fountain and counter.

You maybe have noticed that Mass Street Soda no longer is located at its longtime home at 11th and Massachusetts streets. The building, which also used to house Englewood Florists (which moved to North Lawrence), is undergoing a major renovation. Mass Street Soda has moved to a new spot at 935 Massachusetts, which is where Jayhawk Spirit previously was.

The 935 Massachusetts location, however, is just a temporary spot for Mass Street Soda. It already has signed a lease to move back to the 11th and Massachusetts location once the renovations are complete. When the business returns — likely in the late spring or early summer of 2018 — it will have an actual soda fountain and counter.

“It will allow us to do fresh soda,” said Lucas Thompson, owner of Mass Street Soda. “We’ll be making our own syrups.”

Currently, the shop just sells bottled soda, but lots of it. The store carries about 1,300 varieties of sodas during the summer, although the number can drop to a mere 900 during the winter, when specialty sodas get a little more difficult to come by.

“It is hard to bring soda in over the winter,” Thompson said. “It freezes during shipments.”

At the moment, the store has only 130 varieties of root beer.

The store will continue to have massive amounts of bottled soda in the future. But Thompson is excited about the soda fountain possibilities. He even recently traveled to New York state to an old pharmacy that still has a soda fountain. He learned a few tricks about making egg creams, which he said kind of taste like a carbonated chocolate milk. (My understanding is that La Prima Tazza, and perhaps some other local coffee shops, have egg creams available currently.)

Plans call for the soda counter to have four types of soda on tap at any given time. The flavors likely will rotate depending on the season. Thompson mentioned incorporating seasonal fruit into some of the recipes.

But don’t get the wrong idea about what type of place this is going to be. Soda counters sound like the type of thing that could get trendy and do to soda what baristas have done to coffee: require you to take out a home equity loan to have a cup.

“It won’t be super fancy or expensive,” Thompson said. “I won’t charge $6 for a cup of soda. It will be $2 or $3 for some soda. Our biggest market is families.”
In addition to the locally made soda, Thompson said he’ll also have several other kegs of commercially made soda on tap as well. Expect the shop to have some ice cream available too, in order to facilitate root beer and soda floats.

The new project continues what has been a somewhat surprising run for Mass Street Soda. The business opened in 2014, and Thompson knows many people were wondering how a soda shop would make it in today’s world.

Well, there are lots of people who like soda, and even a larger number who like the idea of finely crafted items. Just as microbreweries have exploded in popularity because of the craft behind their products, some of that is happening in the soda world too.

Thompson now has three soda shops. In addition to the Lawrence store, he has one at The Legends shopping district near the Kansas Speedway and one in the City Market district of Kansas City. Both of those operate under the name KC Soda Co.

He gets his bottled soda from all over the country, and sometimes has to beg for it. He said many of the soda companies are small and produce sodas only a few times per year. They have limited quantities and aren’t always interested in selling to a shop in Kansas. That sometimes requires some unique deal-making skills.

“One guy told me no, and I told him it was my birthday,” Thompson said. “That worked.”

As for the renovations at 11th and Massachusetts, the building’s ownership group includes Lawrence landlord Dalton Paley, who said he and his partners plan to do a significant renovation that really highlights some of the historic character of the building.

I don’t have other details of the renovation. At the moment, I don’t believe the project has a tenant for the former Englewood space at the corner of the project. But Thompson said he thinks the renovation is going to be a game-changer for the 1100 block, which doesn’t get as much foot traffic as other parts of downtown.

“They are completely gutting the building,” Thompson said. “I don’t know everything they are doing, but I’ve seen enough to know it is going to be awesome when it is done.”