K&B Drugstore Soda Fountains
Many locations around town
South Carrollton @ South Claiborne Avenues (downtown, river corner).
From the earliest days of the modern pharmacy, beverages of various kinds were dispensed in drugstores at least as often as drugs were. The first makers of cocktails were pharmacists. So were the guys who invented Coca-Cola, made ice cream sundaes, and created nectar soda.
As late as the 1960s, almost every drugstore in New Orleans had a soda fountain. It was like that everywhere in America. Few people in 1962 would have guessed that by 1970 the drugstore soda fountain would be nearly extinct.
The dominant drugstore chain in New Orleans during the twentieth century was Katz & Besthoff. It had stores all over town, immediately identifiable for the trademark purple livery on its signs, bags, and product labels. All the K&Bs had soda fountains. Good ones, too, with a signature soda found nowhere else in America.
The nectar soda was created at a K&B store in the late 1800s. The flavor was a blend of almond and vanilla. What made it distinctive was its unique color: a brilliant pink, originally from cochineal, an extract from beetles. Nectar sodas were so popular that K&B engaged the I.L. Lyons Company–a manufacturer of drugstore products–to make it for them.
The K&B soda fountains prepared much more than sodas, though. Their menus were as extensive as those of a full-fledged restaurant. They began the day with chicory coffee, made-in-house biscuits, bacon and eggs. Around lunchtime, the K&B grill got to work on its long list of sandwiches, from soda fountain standards like grilled cheese to K&B’s signature hamburger: the King Burger. (The KB–get it?) The cooked daily specials like red beans and rice and gumbo, too.
In the early 1970s, K&B modernized and streamlined its stores. They pulled out the soda fountains to make room for more profitable retail goods. The locals bemoaned the change, but K&B found that the profits from the new merchandise were much greater than the labor-intensive fountains ever returned.
It took years for all the K&B fountains to disappear. The last of them was in the store in Harahan. In the meantime, all the other drugstores followed suit. So did the five-and-ten-cent stores like Woolworth’s. The last holdout was Schweickhardt’s Drugs in Carrollton. Finally its famously good fountain closed, too.
The soda fountain I remember most fondly was at Bradley’s Pharmacy. It was in an old K&B store that was rendered surplus when K&B built a new store diagonally across the intersection. Bradley’s was on the highly visible corner of Carrollton and Claiborne–a critical nexus for those of us who got around on buses and streetcars. Bunny Matthews noted in one of his cartoons that this was the center of the known universe.
It seems odd now that K&B would turn its old place over to a competing drugstore. Apparently Mr. Bradley (I don’t remember his first name, if I ever knew it) thought it was an opportunity.
The old place was very similar to the still-operating former K&B (now Rite-Aid) at the corner of St. Charles and Broadway. If Mr. Bradley made any renovations before he moved in, they were not apparent. The soda fountain looked the same as K&B soda fountains had looked for decades. You could slake your thirst with anything from a cherry Coke to a nectar soda. From a small grill came hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, and a few other sandwiches.
Carrollton and Claiborne was the end of the line for at least eight bus and streetcar routes. Their drivers, after using the underground bathroom in the central island of the intersection, popped into Bradley’s for coffee. Both pure and chicory were on tap from the big urns. The waitresses–dressed exactly as you remember sofa-fountain ladies did–always got the bus drivers’ orders out first. They treated guys my age like their own adolescent children.
Bradley’s was at my transfer point from the electric Tulane buses to the Huey P. Long line, en route from home to Jesuit High School. Every afternoon between buses, I was in Bradley’s for a cherry Coke and an order of fries, along with a lot of other high school kids from McMain, Fortier, and De La Salle. I’d sit at the counter as long as I could, reading Marvel comic books during that golden age.
More than anything else, Bradley’s crinkle-cut French fries, however, that made me a regular customer. They were fried to order in a vat of oil which, for some reason, foamed up as they fried. They had a unique flavor that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. Or find again.
I continued my afternoon snack stop at Bradley’s for years after I got my own car and stopped taking the bus. That didn’t end until Mr. Bradley retired. His building was bought out from under him, and torn down in 1971 to make way for a bank.
Bradley’s was my Schweickhardt’s, my “Happy Days”-style hangout. It loomed large among the set-pieces of my mid-teens, and lingers warmly in my memory. I’d love to taste fries like those again. I wonder whether they were really as good as I recall.