Soft Drink Revival: A Return to Old-Fashioned Soda Shops

soda fountain

How different would America—and our relationship with soft drinks—be if we embraced a return to old-fashioned soda fountain shops?

While you perhaps saw one of the SodaStream commercials during this year’s Super Bowl, the other ad was pulled, mainly because it was critical of both Coca-Cola and Pepsi, two of the event’s biggest sponsors (Pepsi produced the Half Time show). SodaStream, which is a DIY tool that allows you to make unlimited amounts of soda at home, targeted the excessive plastic and aluminum waste created by the soft drink industry.

The numbers are staggering—plastic bottles are an immense problem, with more than 340 billion produced around the world each year, and fewer than half of those find their way to proper recycling facilities. Coca-Cola’s own website reports the brand sells more than 1 billion servings of its products every day. And even if those are from the soda fountains at fast food restaurants or convenience stores, those sodas still wind up in plastic cups with plastic lids and plastic straws.

Beyond the environmental reasons for ditching the bottled soft drinks, there are of course a plethora of health reasons as well. Sodas are full of caloric high fructose corn syrup, which is closely linked to our nation’s obesity epidemic. They also contain artificial colors and flavors, and those diet drinks, are full of artificial sweeteners that have been linked to  neurological and reproductive issues and even certain types of cancer.

SodaStream’s product challenges an industrial food mainstay that has an incredibly influential power over our culture. After all, little else is as refreshing or satisfying as a fizzy, bubbly, sweet and cold soft drink. But, too much of a good thing is…well, a crippling obesity and diabetes epidemic and a giant gyre of plastic floating in the ocean causing irreversible damage to the planet.

But can’t we have our Mountain Dew and drink it too?

I thought you’d never ask.

Flip on the television to Turner Classic Movies and inevitably you’ll soon see a gaggle of teens or a couple of young lovers sitting in a soda shop, sipping on a rather mediocre sized glass of cola. Our original foray into carbonated beverages was as an attempt to reproduce naturally effervescent mineral waters, which were renowned for their health-giving properties. It’s why the original formulas for products including Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper were touted as healthy tonics that could treat, cure and even prevent disease—a mix of herbs and spices measured and formulated to enhance the bubbly waters—and it’s also why they were first only available in pharmacies.

Our modern soda shops (rhymes with “Farducks”) serve as communal watering holes, but they’re not quite as alluring as a traditional soda shop. (There’s something about the vibe of a place that serves bubbly, fizzy, fun drinks versus the seriousness of bitter, hot coffee, right?) At the turn of the 20th century, when soda shops were hitting their peak, they preceded the era of commercial food transport and refrigeration. So, many shops had to make their own syrup formulas, mixing each drink to order by the masterful baristas of their time: soda jerks (the name comes from the jerking motion of pulling the taps).

According to Julia Moskin of the New York Times, as consumers become more enamored with local and artisan-crafted foods, we’re also beginning to see the return of the soda shops in all their steampunk glory: “Places like Blueplate, the Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain are leading a revival that is bringing up-to-date culinary values — seasonal, house-made, ripe, local — to ice cream sodas, sundaes and egg creams.”

Whether a full on soda shop revival is even possible, or whether we’ll all get SodaStreams and make our own sodas at home, we do now more than ever seem to need a return to the soda shop mentality. We do well to invest in the experience of consuming these beverages as much having more control over what’s in them.

While this is certainly a much different world than the dawn of the 20th century, where we can get our social fix at the swipe of an iPhone and our soda fix around every corner, our need for gathering places has not diminished. Our need for treating ourselves and stepping out on occasion is still critical to our sense of pride and participation in our communities. Drinking a 20-ounce Pepsi from a plastic bottle in the solitude of a car or a cubicle, is not.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.