Soda shops and ice cream shops and confectioneries used to dominate the shopping strips in neighborhoods all over New York City. They were the gathering spots for young people, where they met after school, where they spent Saturday afternoons.
Pick up any old issue of the Archie Comics and you’ll see the gang hanging out at Pop Tate’s Chocklit Shoppe. On television, Richie Cunningham and Fonzie and the gang hung out at Arnold’s (later renamed Al’s). These may have been fictional joints, but they give you a good idea what they were like in real life.
Here in Woodhaven, the typical fountain shops were often smaller and could be found on nearly every block. Some of them may have been better classified as newsstands with soda fountains, but others had counters and candies and were closer to the vision we were familiar with in the comics and on tv.
“We called them candy stores,” said Walter Steffens, longtime resident of Woodhaven. Not only did Walter grow up visiting many of the ice cream and soda shops on Jamaica Avenue, but working in his father’s refrigeration business (which he would later inherit) meant that he serviced most of these shop’s machinery.
“We serviced all of the butchers and delicatessens on Jamaica Avenue,” Walter said. “But the best was when you were doing repairs in the ice cream shops because you always got an ice cream soda when you were finished!”
When prompted, Walter can rattle off the names of many local ice cream shops in Woodhaven. “There was Sam’s (Sam and Rose) on 80th Street and Jamaica. And near the corner of 79th and Jamaica, where there’s a small barber shop now, that was a small newsstand, with a fountain.”
“And then you had the ice cream parlors. You had Muller’s on 80th Street. And also on 80th Street, closer to Forest Parkway, there was a shop named Grader’s, which later became Behren’s,” he added. “Of course, on 86th Street there was Popp’s. Over by the Roosevelt Theater there was a Schmidt’s Ice Cream Parlor and along by 89th Street there was another one called Wrede’s. And then came Wilkins near Woodhaven and Jamaica.”
“And then on the other side of the boulevard you had Meyer’s, near 96th Street. And of course the old Schmidt’s by 94th Street,” he noted.
It’s remarkable to picture Jamaica Avenue with all of these soda fountain and ice cream shops. Conversely, it’s disheartening to think that almost all of them have been closed and largely forgotten for many years.
Popp’s is still around at the same location, at the corner of 86th Street and Jamaica. Now known as Pop’s Restaurant (the establishment has changed hands many times and the name lost a “p” when the Popp family sold the business decades ago), you can go inside and see many old pictures of how the place used to look, many years ago.
And Schmidt’s at 94th Street is now in its 90th year and, remarkably, still owned by the same family that opened it. Margie Schmidt, the current owner, still uses the same recipes and even some of the same molds that her grandfather used when he started the business in 1927.
If you’ve never been to Schmidt’s, February is a great month to do so as they have a lot of Valentine’s Day treats to choose from, everything from chocolate hearts and lollipops and roses, to dipped caramels and pretzels, to vanilla cremes, to chocolate covered cherries or strawberries, and more.
“I recently ordered a new box of the little paper chocolate cups, and I noticed that I had gotten my last box of 25,000 cups exactly a year ago,” Margie said, explaining how many candies her hands produce each and every year. “And that’s not counting all the loose candies, the ones that don’t go into cups, the ones that go into boxes.”
“So at a minimum, that’s about 50,000 pieces of candy, all freshly made, the old-fashioned way; the way my grandfather made it, right here in this basement, back in 1927,” she added.
It was a different world many years ago, and much of it may only still exist in our memories. So take advantage and enjoy the few remaining old-fashioned shops we have and help keep them alive for generations to come.