Lynden's in St. Paul revives old-fashioned soda shop

John Lynden

John Lynden

John Lynden is a jerk.

Actually, he's a very warm, convivial guy who successfully pulls off Truman Capote-esque glasses, neatly cuffed jeans, and black Chuck Taylors, but he proudly admits to being a jerk. Lynden and his wife, Tobi, who is also a jerk, are the owners of the charming and impressively authentic Lynden's Soda Fountain, a bubbly new hangout in the former home of Kopplin's Coffee in St. Paul.

For those not familiar with soda fountain culture, "jerk" is the preferred term for a person who serves soda at a place like this. The name supposedly comes from the back-and-forth jerking motion a server had to apply to the soda fountain handle when making a phosphate, ice cream soda, or anything else that required a couple of shots of charged water. Most of the jerks at Lynden's aren't old enough to have experienced the whimsy and carnival-style showmanship that were hallmarks of the original American soda fountains, popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the Lyndens have trained their employees well, passing on their passion for vintage candies, handcrafted floats, and even egg creams. For John Lynden, the obsession started fairly early in life, and this unique hobby, coupled with some of the more fortunate occupational hazards that come with working in real estate, sparked the idea for him to open his own soda fountain.

"One of my clients, Randy Hanson, who runs the Summit Sips website, handed me some syrup he made using the original recipe for Coca-Cola," says Lynden. "I bought a soda siphon and, this is where the internet is so dangerous, started collecting vintage bottles and bottling them."

After his business partner, Matt Miller, stumbled on a commercial property that didn't fit the needs of any of their clients (or, as fate would have it, the needs of their dream soda fountain either), Lynden says things really started coming together. "I went home and started searching on Craigslist for soda fountain equipment, and believe it or not, there was one sitting in the basement of a church in St. Paul, like five blocks from my house." Miller and the Lyndens bought the fountain, which had a serial number that traced it to being built in 1958 by a company called Stanley Knight in Chicago, then the epicenter of soda fountain culture. It was complete with a milk case, ice cream cabinet, and the all-important soda draft arm, but years of corrosion meant that restoration was the first order of business. "We actually had to send it right back to Chicago once we got it," Lynden laughs. "There's a company there, I think really the only one left, called American Soda Fountain, that specializes in this type of work. The whole restoration cost about $11,000."

There was still a long and winding road toward opening. After a bunch of handshake deals fell through on potential spaces, the old Kopplin's, next door to Casper and Runyon's Nook (and smartly situated near several schools), became available, and it seemed that the waiting and disappointments had finally paid off.

"I knew when we stepped into it that it was the ideal place for a fountain," says Lynden. Indeed, the long and narrow setup works well for all the fountain's various functions. Beyond the case full of high-percentage butterfat ice cream and shelves of Necco Wafers, Cracker Jacks, Slo Pokes, and Abba-Zabas, there's a smooth white marble countertop with several built-in stools, the size of which make you realize people really were, as grandparents are wont to remind us, "much smaller back then." Above a mirrored wall that features the hand-painted Lynden's logo is a display of the richly colored natural soda syrups (available for purchase by the bottle) from P & H Soda Co. in Brooklyn, New York, ranging in flavors from familiar lime to surprisingly sour hibiscus. Lynden says he's planning to expand the syrup options, which includes collaborating with some local talent. "We're working with Zoie Glass from Lucille's Kitchen Garden," says Lynden. "She makes the most amazing pepper jam, but she is working on a ginger syrup right now."

In choosing their vendors, Lynden says, it was important to him that companies use natural ingredients, especially pure cane sugar, and could help re-create that bona fide soda shoppe experience. "We use Fox's U-bet chocolate and vanilla syrups for our egg creams (served with a pretzel rod) and chocolate sodas. Most people consider that to be the original chocolate syrup, and it was used at all the old soda fountains in New York back in the day. It's still used at Brooklyn Farmacy, which is another restored soda fountain that we have kind of modeled ourselves on," says Lynden, who was fresh off a visit to New York, where he spent some time with "the Farm's" owners. Lynden's also remains true to the science of the soda fountain. "We use acid phosphate that we get from a place called Art of Drink in all our phosphates. Other places will just use citric acid or just lemon or lime juice or syrup and then charged water and call that a phosphate. It's not."

Other product-related decisions were less technical. "In terms of ice cream, we knew off the bat we wanted to have a super-premium ice cream, but we didn't want to use Grand Ole Creamery or Izzy's or anything like that," Lynden explains. "Those places are already institutions. Why would anyone make a point to come to our place to get that ice cream when they can go straight to the source, you know?" There's a more practical reason too. "It's expensive. It gets very expensive very quickly, and we really wanted to keep our costs reasonable for our customers." When he ultimately elected to serve Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream from Madison, Wisconsin, Lynden says it wasn't because of the inventive flavors (though the Fat Elvis, a banana ice cream with salty peanut butter ripple and chunks of chocolate, makes a positively divine shake), but rather the impeccable balance of the base flavors in their plain chocolate and vanilla. "Once you start adding candies and cherries and syrups to the ice cream, it can get overwhelmed or too sweet," says Lynden. "You need that good base flavor, and we really liked Chocolate Shoppe's."

But Lynden isn't really too big on the ice cream stuff himself; he tends to be drawn more toward the soda side of the shop. "I don't drink alcohol, so for me having places like ours and Eat Street Social serving interesting, handcrafted drinks that aren't alcoholic is pretty great." Lynden's is already proving to be a great place to drop in and post up at pretty much any time of the day. It serves Dogwood Coffee from northeast Minneapolis and a daily-changing selection of doughnuts from Mojo Monkey in the morning. And then there are the candy treats, inspiring nostalgia in some and completely new to others. The place is part neighborhood hub and part time machine, giving it broad appeal but also a unique edge. "We already had a guy who came in and ordered a cappuccino and then stayed until that was done and got a malt," Lynden laughs. "I don't know very many other places where people do that."