Of soda fountains and ice cream parlors

The good old days, when a nickel could buy something of value at the corner drug store and the soda jerk was an important community fixture.

There was a time when every town had an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with wispy metal chairs around glass-topped tables and shadowy booths where fellows took their girls. Ceiling fans whirred overhead and as you entered you were met by sloping glass cases filled with candies and chocolates.

Then there was the soda fountain with its marble top in front of a massive mirror, shiny spouts and gleaming metal work area where a prince in white jacket presided. No mere soda-jerk was he — that defaming term had not yet been coined. He was, rather, a fellow of infinite skill, able to produce a milkshake with a few deft moves with large containers and a mixing machine. His sorcery done, he poured with a flourish, usually at arm’s length from a great height.

Then he set the frosty treasure before his customer as one might proffer a cup of ambrosia to a king. So said J. Norman McKenzie in a 1969 Sunday Magazine article.

Jim Berry of the Richmond Times remembers working as a soda jerk: “When the girls from Holy Family, A Catholic school across the street, piled in, things got pretty frantic for a while. The girls all dressed alike but they didn’t all look alike. Some of them got extra syrup in their cherry Cokes. And if Doc Cramer (the owner) wasn’t looking, some extra ice cream went into certain milkshakes. Being a soda jerk was a wonderful work experience. You had to deal directly with people and you had to make change from an old cash register that made a great clanging, ringing noise whenever you rang up a sale. And woe to the person whose drawer failed to balance out after the store closed.”

Soda jerks came in all shapes and sizes — and dress. But there was never a shortage of smiles.

     Speaking of soda jerks, in 1938, University of Michigan student soda jerkers were upset about the term. They formed a “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Soda Jerkers Who Want to be Known as Fountaineers of America.” It’s apparent the new term never caught on.

For anyone who grew up in the Detroit area, no story of ice cream parlors could be complete without the saga of Fred Sanders.

Ellyce Field, a Detroit News writer, described one of her visits: “Nineteen stools surround the fountain service area. Neon lights highlight colorful painted graphics of hot fudge bottles, strawberries and cherries. Hanging over the far end of the counter is an old fashioned clock with the inscription ‘Always Time For Ice Cream’, the true Sanders aficionado’s creed. Here a child (or one at heart) can dangle his legs, twirl on the stools, make faces in the mirrored walls, watch other customers across the counter dribble hot fudge on their shirts, take deep breaths of the hot fudge in large containers just inches away and best of all, watch those great sundaes and sodas being made..”

Fred Sanders founded his company in 1875, opening a store on Woodward and Gratiot. He started out selling candy, then ice cream, later adding baked goods, ice cream sodas and sundaes. In the early l970s, they had 58 stores with additional sales through 200 supermarkets.

In the early days, Fred Sanders opened on Sundays, a big day for business. One day, standing near the open door, he overheard two ladies say, “My! It is time that something is being done about these men who are trying to get the everlasting dollar and find it necessary to violate the Sabbath.”

Ryan Celina, 6, of Taylor, looks longingly at a hot fudge cream puff at the Sanders store at Southfield and Dix in Lincoln Park in 1988.

     He closed his store and Sanders was never again open on Sundays, a decision he never regretted.

Fred W., grandson of the founder, left school in the l0th grade to learn the business and started out cracking ice for ice cream freezers. As he grew older, he turned the freezers by hand. Then Grandpa Sanders bought an electric motor in the l890s and he was out of a job. Grandpa had trouble with the “new-fangled” motor and threatened to throw it out. Detroit Edison talked him into giving it another try and sent over a man to fix it. The name of the repairman? Henry Ford.

In 1891, Sanders built the “Pavilion of Sweets” on Woodward, an unconventional casino with mosque-type tower in front and gay red-and-white striped awnings. Grandpa Sanders is credited with inventing the ice cream soda here (although there are others claiming this honor.)

The story goes that one summer evening when crowds swarmed in for sweet cream sodas, the favorite drink of the day, Fred discovered the cream was sour. He quickly substituted a scoop of ice cream, telling the crowd, “I can give you something just as good.”

This was the world premiere of the ice cream soda. As word spread about this delicious new drink it became so popular that he had to hire more help and add six horse blocks in front of his store.

Two-year old Pearl Tuckett proudly wears the evidence of an ice cream treat in 1953.

The story of the ice cream sundae has many versions. The most popular comes from Evanston, Ill. In the late 1800s, the sale of ice cream sodas was banned on Sundays. Confectioners concocted a substitute of ice cream and syrup for the first day of the week and called it a “Sunday soda”, later altered to “sundae”. Whatever the true story, there is no doubt Sander’s hot fudge sundae is one of the most renowned, at least in Metro Detroit.

In 1929 the director of the State Narcotic Association, a Dr. Waite, charged that candy makers were putting heroin into chocolate drops and selling them for $2 a box. “Three of these chocolate drops,” he insisted, “induce in young women a spirit of bravado that takes the place of modesty. Young men know of this. Often when they buy their girls a box of chocolate, which seems an innocent thing, this is but a prelude to a tragic story.”

Fred Sanders was incensed and wrote, “I cannot conceive of a legitimate confectioner performing a deed of this kind…If this practice is a true fact, the name of said confectioner should be published (so) the industry as a whole may not suffer”. Dr. Waite later retracted his story.

To celebrate Sanders’ centennial in 1975, Jack Sanders, great grandson of the founder, invited the Mayor of Detroit, city council and other Detroit celebrities to step behind the counter and make their own favorite ice cream dessert. He also recreated the Sanders 1890s horse-drawn ice cream wagon, which traveled through the city during the celebration.

That same year, the Detroit Historical Society honored Sanders for the company’s many innovations, including:

– The first carry-out service;

– The comfortable low stool and table height counters which became the standard in the industry;

– The ‘Kiddie Tray’ that brought the fountain down to a child’s level with a unique device that formed a subshelf below the countertop;

-Ice tray packages that made it possible to store ice cream at home;

-The use of dry ice to keep the product cold.

The Sanders Building at 1525 Woodward, with Grinnell Brothers, another Detroit landmark, next door.

     The company was always generous in donations of candy to needy children, especially at Christmas.

Sanders sponsored a baking school at Oakland Community College in 1976, sending their own people as teachers. Supposedly, the course attracted many students from rival Awrey.

Many remember the efficient and helpful service of Sanders employes. Sanders was not unaware of the importance of pleasing customers. A 1952 Detroit News article describes in detail the five days of training that awaited prospective employes, covering how to dress and what to say, all the recipes for the soda fountain (there was a recipe for everything from hot chocolate to Boston coolers) and operating the cash register.

In training for candy sales, employees were told it was better to be slightly over than under when weighing a customer’s order. “We can’t afford to appear stingy.” Employes also had to pass written exams.

As of July 1996, there are no more Sanders stores (the last four remaining stores will operate under the name of “Olde Detroit Confectioners”), the name will live on in Detroit, conjuring up visions of Boston coolers, hot fudge sundaes, banana splits, cream puff hot fudges, ice cream sodas, milkshakes, butter cream icing,s caramel icings, chocolate creams, nuts and caramels, Devil’s food butter cream bumpy party cakes as well as tuna fish, chicken, minced ham and egg salad sandwiches on white bread.

For many Detroiters, Sanders was the zenith of confectioners. Ken Ross, a former Detroit News writer, once said that the company…”is as Detroit as marble window sills and leaded glass windows, as Detroit as Vernor’s ginger ale. Its name alone evokes nostalgia among long-time Detroiters and a longing for home among the city’s expatriates.”

Sanders now has a Web site and online store at

Sanders recipes

In 1973, Jack Sanders gave permission to print some famous icing recipes in The Detroit News, reducing the formula for 300 lbs. to a size that could be used in a home kitchen.

The recipes for butter cream icing, caramel icing and hot fudge topping are reprinted here.

Sanders Buttercream Icing

2 cups butter or margarine
2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
2 large egg whites
1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

Place butter in mixing bowl, add 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, mix at low speed to obtain smooth paste. Whip at medium speed, adding the sweetened condensed milk slowly and gradually until light and fluffy.
Using a very clean bowl and beater, whip the egg whites until stiff while adding the 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar slowly. Mix this meringue slowly into the above butter mixture. Add vanilla and remaining 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar. This last amount of sugar can be doubled if stiffer icing is desired. (Note: Best results are obtained when butter and sugar are at room temperature and egg whites and milk are cold out of the refrigerator.)

Sanders Caramel Icing

1 pound caramels
1/2 cup hot water
1 cup butter or margarine
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Place caramels and water in double boiler. Heat and stir until a smooth cream is obtained. Cool. Place butter in mixing bowl, add sugar and mix at low speed to obtain smooth paste. Mix at medium speed, adding above cooled caramel cream slowly. If stiffer icing is desired, reduce amount of water.

Sanders Hot Fudge Topping

l/3 cup milk
l pound caramels
l/2 pound Sanders milk chocolate
l/2 pint Sanders vanilla ice cream or l cup soft ice cream
l teaspoon vanilla extract

Place milk and caramels in double boiler, heat and stir until hot, smooth cream is obtained. Chop the chocolate and add it to the above hot cream. Stir until melted. Mix in soft ice cream and vanilla extract and stir until smooth.
Variation: Instead of using milk, substitute l/3 cup very strong coffee.By Kay Houston / The Detroit News