“Chicken Salad on white, tea, half sweet and half not” is how Mary Eason identifies Dr. Billy Nessmith when he walks in The Soda Shoppe located inside the Medical Center Pharmacy.
Eason is one of three full-time employees at The Soda Shoppe and Dr. Nessmith has been eating at the little nine table restaurant twice a week for 40 years. That tradition, however, is about to end. Owners Jamie Nevil and Walter Pease have decided, after 56 years, to get out of the restaurant business and today is the final day. The pharmacy operations will continue at both locations of the Medical Center Pharmacy.
“The Soda Shoppe was my Dad’s (Lem Nevil) hobby,” Jamie Nevil said. “I remember in the early days my parents would boil the chickens all night at our house and dad would bring them to work the next morning so they could hand-make the chicken salad. All the recipes were developed by my mom, Anne Nevil and my dad.”
When Lem and Chester Hanberry opened their new pharmacy in 1960, it was common back then to include a soda fountain counter where they would hand dip vanilla or cherry into your coke or freshly squeeze lemons or oranges for your favorite drink.
In 1984, Walter and Jamie expanded the restaurant into the rear of the building, adding a commercial kitchen and more seating for customers.
“When I started working for Lem in 1964, I was 12,” Pease said. “My two primary jobs were jerking sodas and sweeping floors. I also made deliveries on my bike. I used to pride myself on being able to ride a bike to Brown’s Nursing home and back in 10 minutes. Pharmacies back then were more than just a retail operation, they were a meeting place that provided a social outlet for so many. Our customers became our family through the years.”
As the business grew, they always kept the restaurant operation simple, offering great handmade items like chicken salad, pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches.
But what really makes this place special are the people who work here. It was one of the few places where you could really step back into time when life seemed simpler. Chiyna Parker, Mary Eason, Paula McMillian and Alivea Griffin, a work study student at Statesboro High School, have run the operation with a compassionate spirt that made you want to come back for more.
“It was the place we came for special occasions for a reward from our parents like a doctor’s visit or the first day of school,” Esther Vickers said. “One special first day of school tradition was coming after school for a cherry coke and a picture with my brother Bill T. Akers and my sister Lillian Akers Brown. Those pictures, like the Soda Shoppe are very special memories from childhood that we will never forget.”
Times have changed in the pharmacy and restaurant business. The margins are tighter and the complexities of both businesses provide different challenges.
“This is like a death in the family. It is very hard for all of us,” Jamie Nevil said. “We had to make a financial decision that was best for our business overall and allows us to focus our energy on our primary business. However, we would consider leasing the operation if the right opportunity presented itself.”
Grilled chicken, toasted bun, honey mustard, lettuce and tomato with a sweet tea floating in the most amazing crushed ice you could ever imagine served with a smile and a compliment. That was my twice a week ritual. I went on Thursday’s to get ideas for my Tuesday stories and on Tuesday so Dr. Donald Hawk could critique my stories and share with me ways they could be better.
Not only will I join most of you reading this story in mourning the loss of this special place in our community’s history, but more importantly contemplate the challenges of a growing community and in spite of all the good it brings, we all long for some things to just stay the same.
The Soda Shoppe, located inside the Medical Center Pharmacy on Grady Street, will close its doors today at 4 p.m.
DeWayne Grice is business editor for the Statesboro Herald. Email him at email@example.com.