The History of Soda Jerks
First let’s start by defining “Soda Jerk.” The term Soda Jerk came from the action the fountain attendant made when pulling the soda draft arm. This jerking motion coined the phrase “Soda Jerk.” The origin and date of the phrase are unknown, but became very popular in the 20’s, 30’s and into the 50’s.
The Soda Jerk was similar to a bartender, serving-up phosphates, rickeys, and fancy sundaes. The depression and the years that followed were hard times for Americans. Soda fountains were a place where hard working Americans could take a break and enjoy their favorite soda or ice cream. It was also a great focal point for family gatherings.
In 1937, the Hilltop Lunch Counter was born in Marion, Indiana and so was the first McCafferty family’s Soda Jerk. Don McCafferty paid off a delinquent milk bill for $250 and inherited a troubling ice cream store in return. He worked very hard with little success, spending so much time in the store that a cot had to be brought into the restaurant. After a year of hard work, Don decided to sell the Hilltop. However, with the economy still in recession from the depression, no buyers could be found.
Even the local grocery store next to the Hilltop had to close its doors, leaving Don McCafferty and his dream about to come to an end. An owner of a local restaurant supply company convinced Don to take over the grocery store, remodel and enlarge the Hilltop with modern state of the art equipment. This was a huge risk that Don decided to take. Don gave the man one year on the loan and told him that if it didn’t work out, then he would sell. In the summer of 1938, with a new menu featuring the burger-in-a-basket, a hamburger, french fries and a coke for 25¢, Don McCafferty’s dream came true and the restaurant took off, becoming a huge success.
Over the years the menu expanded and so did the staff, from one waiter to 28 employees. In 1950, the Hilltop closed with much regret when Don McCafferty’s poor arthritis condition would not permit him to run the business.
Now, some 50 years later, his grandson Kevin has recreated what his grandfather did so many years ago. With stories from his father of how his granddad cooked, and what it was like to eat at the Hilltop, Soda Jerks set out to keep the spirit of the Hilltop alive. With the help of many that would take several pages to name, Kevin’s dream, like his grandfather’s, has come true. Soda Jerks goal is to assure you of the highest quality at the lowest prices possible.
Along with a strong family tradition of soda jerking, Kevin has had a great amount of training in ice cream related fields. At the age of 16, Kevin’s first fountain job was with the Fosselman Ice Cream Company where he learned how to serve up ice cream sodas, shakes and malts from the best in the business. The Fosselman family began making ice cream around the same time the Carousel building was originally built (established in 1919) and has stayed true to the early 1900’s era. Kevin credits most of his knowledge and appreciation of ice cream to the Fosselman’s. Soda Jerks proudly serve Fosselman’s ice creams, sorbets, and hot fudge.
Since the inception in 1994, Soda Jerks have gone through many changes. The Pasadena Soda Jerks enjoyed over 12 years of successful business growing from an ice cream only soda fountain to a complete lunch counter. However, with limited expansion potential, the Pasadena Soda Jerks proved to be too small. Thus, in 2005 the Pasadena Soda Jerks was closed at the conclusion of its lease. Around the time of the Pasadena Soda Jerks closure, negotiations began to open Soda Jerks in the historic Carousel building on the Santa Monica Pier.
What better backdrop for the next Soda Jerks than the historic Carousel building on the Santa Monica Pier. The goal was not only to preserve the historic landmark Carousel building, but to enhance it by adding a similar era full working soda fountain mirroring the carousels nostalgic charm. With help from his brother/new partner, Soda Jerks on the Santa Monica Pier became a reality and opened its doors on July 10, 2010.
Along with the traditional ice cream that Soda Jerks serves, the decor of the Santa Monica store has been created with all original fixtures of the 30’s and 40’s, reflecting the workmanship of the time. The lights above came from a 1920’s Kansas City saloon and the soda fountain (refurbished by American Soda Fountain out of Chicago) consists of a 30 gallon Stanley Knight (original built in the 1940’s). Also used are original Hamilton Beach mixers and a very rare Hamilton Beach malt dispenser.
The candy case dates back to the 1920’s and offers 55 drawers filled with traditional favorites and hard to find novelty candies. For those of you with a keen eye for antiques, you might remember the candy case in its original use, a yarn and spool dispenser. Everything down to the Soda Jerk uniform is unique to the original Carousel era including a white button down shirt, white pants, black belt, black shoes, black bowtie and a traditional cloth soda jerk hat (as depicted in the Soda Jerk logo).
The local press has recognized Soda Jerks high standards by publishing several articles such as, “best shake” by the Pasadena Weekly and making the L.A. Times top forty lists for the “best hot fudge sundae in L.A.” Most of these awards were voted on by you, our local patrons.
We thank you for all the support and hope that you can help keep Soda Jerks a special place. To continue providing quality product and service, we ask you to help us by letting us know how we are doing. If you are not satisfied, we are not satisfied. Thank you once again for your patronage and don’t forget to tip your hat on the way out to the team of Soda Jerks working hard behind the counter.