Shenandoah must rally to save soda fountain that has long made the best malts on Earth

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

SHENANDOAH, Iowa, Aug. 2, 2020 – Well, I’ll be damned.

You’re telling me a business operates for 132 years in a solid, people-serving, community-building way in my hometown – including making the best malts on Earth at its classic soda fountain – and it’s now going belly-up?

Not on my watch, brothers and sisters of Shenandoah.  Oh no.

I know that the George Jay Drug Co. is not mine.  But it sort of is.  I feel like I at least have some rights to a couple of the stools at the soda fountain after all the malts, phosphates, limeades, Cokes, coffees and Clown Sundaes I’ve had there.  In earlier years, how many prescriptions were filled there for the Offenburgers?  How many cans of shaving cream did I buy there?  How many tubes of pimple-fixer?  How many packs of cigarettes, back when we all used to smoke? How many magazines and newspapers back when those were sold there?

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The columnist during a Christmastime stop for a malt at Jay Drug in 2015.

And, excuse me, you’re saying now there might be no more Jay’s Drug malts?  That’s just unacceptable.

Mark Vogt, current owner of the recently shuttered drugstore, says he’s “open to any ideas” about how to save the store and its iconic soda fountain.

So let’s start with this one: “Make us a bunch of Jay’s malts, and let’s talk!”

I’ve been writing about malts at Jay Drug for decades, calling them the “best malts on Earth.” They’re so good that many times when I was traveling the state for my Des Moines Register columns, I would drive an extra couple hours to swing through Shenandoah just to get one.  When I wrote about them in 2013, when Jay Drug was celebrating its 125th anniversary in business, I wound up that column this way: “The malts are $3.50 each, but real Shenandoahans don’t give a damn what the cost is. The Jay Drug malt is priceless.”

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Jay Drug and its Hallmark Shoppe in the heart of the Shenandoah business district.

In that 2013 story, Donna Robison, then the chief soda jerk at Jay’s, said she was going to  tell me the secret of why the malts at the soda fountain have been so good.  I leaned across the marble counter, eyes big, ears wide open.  “They’re made with love!” she said.

I think I probably blushed.

“And good ingredients,” Robison continued.  “We start out with really good ice cream.  It is Wells Blue Bunny in 3-gallon tubs.  It’s a special soft serve, not as soft as ice cream coming out of a machine, but just soft enough so it’s a little easier for us to dip out of the tubs.”

The malt powder “isn’t really special – you could buy it anywhere,” she said.  But knowing the right amount to put in is important.

And then there are the steel cups that the malts are mixed in – and in which the malts are served to customers.  Then they pour it into soda fountain glasses as they drink it. “The steel and the glass are important to keeping the malt really cold,” Robison said.

Everly Brothers in Jay Drug in 1986.jpg

Yes, when the Everly Brothers, who grew up into their high school years in Shenandoah, came back home for a concert in 1986, they made the mandatory stop at the Jay Drug soda fountain.

Of course, some of you might think I’m blowing nostalgic smoke here, that these malts couldn’t be all that good.

So to check myself, I contacted Barbara Cunningham this past week and asked if the Jay malts are truly as good as I’ve been saying all these years.

Cunningham has been a regular at Jay’s the last 20 years, after retiring from teaching. “I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and after school and sports practices, we’d get a chocolate malt at least twice a week,” she said. “That’s just what you did back then.  So I know malts.”

And how does she rate Jay’s malts?

“They are perfect!  Their chocolate malt is to die for!”

They’re so good, she said, that in recent years she has limited when she could have one. “My rule has been that if the temperature on the bank’s sign across the street was 100 degrees or higher, or if the temperature on my car’s thermometer was 100 or above, I could buy a malt.  And I could always have one on my birthday.” Did she find herself bending those rules?  “Oh, no!” she said, unconvincingly.

So you can imagine the shock – the grief – that Cunningham and I have had in recent weeks when we’ve realized that Jay Drug, which was forced to close in mid-March by threat of the corona virus, is probably not re-opening.

Why?

Most everybody knows that even in the best of times, many if not most small businesses are economically fragile.

Throw in a forced closure of three or four months because of a pandemic, and no matter how much government aid becomes available, some businesses just aren’t going to make it.

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The motto that has guided Jay Drug business for 132 years.

The truth is, Jay Drug had already gone wobbly by March. In fact, it’d been wobbly for several years.

That can’t be blamed on the soda fountain.

It was not what had made the drug store one of Shenandoah’s oldest, most successful and stable businesses since its founding in 1888 in the heart of downtown, right where it is today.  Its pharmacy was always the moneymaker.

In fact, the community for decades supported three home-owned pharmacies.  Eventually, the other two closed and Jay Drug had the whole market.

But later came a new kind of competition – much stiffer – from the local Hy-Vee Food Store and the local Walmart Supercenter, both with pharmacies.

And that wasn’t the only challenge that Jay Drug and most other small pharmacies have faced.

Angie Ettleman, co-owner of 157-year-old Penn Drug in the nearby town of Sidney, said that “the big insurance companies have been trying to put independent pharmacies out of business.  Most of those insurance companies have their own pharmacies that they want to deal with, and they don’t reimburse us as well,” and the insurance companies keep finding ways to add service fees that the independents are forced to pay.

By the way, Ettleman’s co-owner at Penn Drug the past five years has been Mark Vogt, the same Mark Vogt who for about two years has owned Jay Drug.

Penn Drug, Ettleman said, is doing good business in a wide area around Sidney.  But they don’t have a Hy-Vee and a Walmart Supercenter on the edge of their town.  Even their soda fountain and lunch counter do well, she said, “but at Penn Drug, we always consider the soda fountain as a loss leader. It’s a community hub, and that’s why we keep it.  We don’t make money on it.”

Former Jay Drug owner Annie Van Houten (now Annie Burnison) had worked at the store – mostly in the pharmacy as a technician – for 25 years by 2009, when she and her husband bought the business.  He died in a tragic auto accident in their first year of ownership, and Annie had to deal with her mourning while she was also trying to build the business.

Eventually the pharmacy challenges, cited above, caught up with Jay Drug.  By 2018, she’d had enough and sold the business to Vogt when he came with an offer.

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In the photo at the left, current Jay Drug owner Mark Vogt.

Vogt, now 51 years old, is well known in the pharmacy business across his home state of Nebraska and Iowa, too.  His company Vogt Pharmacies is headquartered in his hometown of Arlington, Neb., pop. 1,300, located between Fremont and Blair in the area northwest of Omaha.

After getting his pharmacy degree from the University of Nebraska, Vogt went to work as a pharmacist and eventually started investing, partnering and consolidating in other pharmacies.

“I made a lot of money in the ’90s,” Vogt told me in a phone interview, “and it became my goal to try and save small town pharmacies. I’ve also learned that, unfortunately, sometimes you just can’t save them.”

He said he’s bought “over 65 stores during the last 25 years,” and has done lots of consolidations, sometimes selling the pharmacy side of the businesses to other larger pharmacies nearby, and sometimes closing stores that he wasn’t able to make profitable.

Right now, he said, “I have 10 locations, spread from New Hampton, Iowa, all the way west to Lexington, Nebraska. Those two stores are nine hours apart.  It’s not an ideal business model, for sure.”

Yes, some of the drug stores he’s helped transition have had popular soda fountains in them.

“That can make it difficult,” he said. “I’ve wound up with people telling me, ‘I don’t care if you have to close the pharmacy, but don’t mess with our soda fountain.’ It’s happened multiple times.”

Vogt is not the ass that many in Shenandoah – and the alumni – might be thinking he is right now when they see Jay Drug closed.

“I think Mark was really charmed by Shenandoah,” said Jacque Lashier, one of the pharmacists at Jay’s in recent years.  “He really seemed to like it here.”

And Kim Burns, who worked 18 years at Jay’s and likely served as its last manager, said “everybody welcomed Mark here.  He’s a people person.”

Vogt’s initial plan at Jay’s was apparently to see if he could re-generate the business by using the collective buying power he has with his 10 stores.

When the pharmacy proved to be beyond salvation, he sold that part of the business to Hy-Vee – and that was a year ago right now.  Even without prescription service, he hoped that the store could make it with non-medicinal healthcare supplies, the Hallmark Shoppe next door that’s also part of Jays, and the famous soda fountain.

But even loyal customers like Barbara Cunningham could see that it wasn’t working.  “People just stopped coming in,” she said.

Operating hours became less regular.  People were growling.

Most everybody understood when Jay Drug closed when the pandemic was closing down all “non-essential” businesses.

But after three months, when most other retail businesses were re-opening, Jay’s never has.

And Mark Vogt became “the bad man” of the town, the store manager Kim Burns said.  “ But I think he got a bad rap.  I know it’s hard for people to accept what happened.  But I do believe Mark really tried to make it work.  In fact, the closing probably came at a good time for him because, for a quite some time, he’d been throwing a lot of his personal money into the store, trying to save it.”

When I interviewed Vogt, he told me that six months ago, “we listed it for sale, but we had very little response.  One guy was interested for time in opening a bike shop in the old bank building, but then that didn’t materialize.  And when COVID-19 hit, that brought bad times for everybody.  Right now, I thought that we’d be open again, but then things started getting more serious again.  And so we’re at a standstill.”

He said he’d like to sell what little is left of the business and its two sturdy buildings, which he bought from the George S. & Grace A. Jay Memorial Trust, to somebody with an idea for a good business in this location that, again, is in the very heart of the downtown business district.

“I’d be open to any ideas,” he said.

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Shenandoah natives, pro journalists and lifetime fans of Jay’s malts — Chuck Offenburger and the late Steve Buttry — at the soda fountain in 2016.

O.K., here are a few ideas from me, and of course, all of mine are conditioned on the idea that any business that would go in there should, of course, operate around the soda fountain, which may well have been operating since 1888 when the drug store opened.

–You already read my first idea, back at the beginning of this column: Let’s get somebody making a bunch of Jay’s malts, gather Mark Vogt and interested parties and do some serious brainstorming.

–Now, here’s what is probably my best idea: Shenandoah has one of the brightest and most successful economic development & Chamber of Commerce executives anywhere in Gregg Connell.  He has pulled off a number of near miracles over the past 20 years, including 1) the amazing Shenandoah Inn & Suites project downtown replacing buildings destroyed or dilapidated by fire and age; 2) development of two bio-fuels production facilities in the community; 3) helping most local industries hold steady through a rocky economy; 4) building strong farm and town relations, and most recently, 5) helping keep KMA radio in local ownership when the third generation of the founding May family decided to sell.  So, let’s beg Connell to dig into the Jay Drug collapse and turn it into another inspiring business renaissance – with the soda fountain in the middle of it.

–Let’s send Connell and two of Shenandoah’s best quilters — Star Ann Kloberdanz and Mims Henstorf — on an exploratory expedition to Hamilton, Missouri, a town of 1,700 that is 50 miles east of St. Joseph.  That’s the home of the Missouri Star Quilt Company.  It’s one of the greatest business successes I’ve ever seen in a small Midwestern town.  The company started with one traditional downtown building in Hamilton, and when I was there a couple of years ago, it had taken over 14 different buildings in that business district.  There are all kinds of fabric shops, stores with other quilting supplies.  They also do a huge online business. It seems to me a robust quilt store would be an ideal takeover of the Hallmark Shoppe that is the former City National Bank, with the Jay Drug building retaining the soda fountain, with a gourmet coffee area added, space for quilting classes, with quilting books and manuals for sale.  “The ambience in those two buildings could really be nice for a big quilt shop,” Kloberdanz told me.  “I think of those sliding ladders in Jay’s that reach to upper-level storage cabinets.  Both those buildings would have really nice quilt display areas.  And if we got a shop here, it should have classes and retreats.  You think of the hotel being almost next door, and several restaurants right downtown, it could become a very popular place for quilting retreats.”  Think of it becoming a significant tourist attraction – with year ’round appeal and online promotion and sales. Does quilting seem to have inter-generational appeal?  “I think there is,” Kloberdanz said. “Of course, a lot of younger people work full-time and have family responsibilities, so they’re more interested in the quicker parts of quilting.” And likely would require quilt shop access on weekends.

— Seven years ago, when I was talking to then-chief soda jerk Donna Robison about Jay’s malts, she proudly talked about the number of people who had started working as teenagers at the soda fountain, and how so many of them went on to great success in a variety of fields, including two former owners of the whole store.  Then she said: “I actually think it should be mandatory that every Shenandoah kid’s first job is making malts here.” So maybe we can build on that.  Let’s get a non-profit organization – maybe one that’s interested in education – to buy the buildings from Mark Vogt.  Then we turn them into the “George Jay Drug Co. Education & Entrepreneurial Center.”  We ask the business education department at Shenandoah High School to develop a curriculum that would have students take over and operate the soda fountain, observing regular business hours including weekends, and earn wages while they learn.  One leading student each year would earn the title of Chief Soda Jerk and be the boss.  There’d be a classroom added where faculty members, leaders from the area’s businesses, and high school alumni could all teach high school students – and why not interested adults, too? – in their specialties.  It would be like a Junior Achievement program on steroids.  And maybe the focus should be on small-town retail in the future.

Finally, as you’re refining my ideas or developing better ones yourself, please heed the advice of Jacque Lashier, likely the last Jay’s pharmacist, who’d love to see some business grow and thrive in the work place she loved: “We need to think way outside the box!”

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.

Believe it or not, the above story is not the longest one Chuck Offenburger has ever written about the George Jay Drug Co. and its famous malted milks.  In 2013, when the business was celebrating 125 years, Offenburger wrote an in-depth story about the Jay family and their prominence in not only local business but also national and international commerce, and society, too.  You can read that earlier story by clicking right here.

5 thoughts on “Shenandoah must rally to save soda fountain that has long made the best malts on Earth

  1. Oh no, not Jay’s! Hey, I live in France and know good food and drink and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Jay’s malts are the absolute best in the world. I remember as a kid going to my Dad’s office which was only a couple of doors down the street to ask for a nickel (was it really only a nickel?) to join my friends at Jay’s for a malt at the counter and finding it the ideal satisfying treat. I remember going back there as an adult visiting my hometown because Jay’s was one of THE important stops on my trip. I think your ideas to keep those malts going are great and hope that enough interested people will take you up on them. If I can help, let me know. In any case I will probably go to bed tonight dreaming of a chocolate malt. And I know that if Shenandoah lets that tradition go, a lot of people will be really sad. Let’s do everything to not let that happen. Thanks for your wonderful column and your wonderful ideas.

    Harriet Welty Rochefort, Paris, France

  2. Totally agree, Chuck. Whenever I returned to Shenandoah, I never left until I went to Jay’s for a malt at the soda fountain.

    Tom Black, West Point NE

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