CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Mary Kay Novak McGrath recalls an era when at least two soda fountains served up sodas and other sweet treats in Czech Village pharmacies.
“I grew up with great memories of going to get a cherry Coke or Green Rivers,” she said, citing drugstores in Cedar Rapids.
Fast-forward decades later and McGrath, who by then owned a dozen buildings in Czech Village, was looking for ways to bring families to the historic business district.
“I thought a candy/toy store and soda fountain would help to create great memories for families,” she said, resulting in the opening of Sweet Mercantile Soda Fountain & Candy Shop last fall at 98 16th Ave. SW, what had long housed Bartunek’s Appliance and more recently, The Create/Exchange.
Old-fashioned candy, chocolates, toys, games and more were offered upon opening Sweet Mercantile in October 2021, but one element was missing.
McGrath and her crew were awaiting the arrival of a refurbished soda fountain that was finally delivered on a recent stormy day.
The soda fountain, fondly dubbed “Babi” for grandmother in Czech, likely dates back to the early 1900s, said Sarah Wick, general manager of Sweet Mercantile.
Wick and others traveled to American Soda Fountain in Chicago to find the antique piece among an indoor acre of soda fountains and parts.
“She was a long-awaited arrival,” Wick said, adding that while they were told it came most recently from Galena, Ill., “we don’t know where its life began, so the origins are a little murky.”
Wick noted she learned of the soda fountain/drugstore connection of a bygone era, when early fountain drinks were concoctions prescribed to cure various maladies.
The early-1900s Klinger building, where Sweet Mercantile is located, was not one of the homes to a soda fountain in Czech Village, but just across C Street SW, the longtime Czech Cottage gift shop building opened in 1901 as a pharmacy that residents remember featured a soda fountain, and generations recall Kosek’s Dime & Dollar Store in the middle of Czech Village, where penny candy and more could be found.
Featuring hardwood floors and pressed tin ceilings, Sweetie’s Ice Cream Parlor, as the new section of Sweet Mercantile is called, is located in what had been the much-beloved Polehna’s Meat Market; one of the casualties of unprecedented flooding in 2008. The ice cream parlor had its soft opening this week, with a grand opening planned for sometime in the future.
Sweetie’s Cherry Kolache Sundae, Crunch Berry Blast, and “The Hot Mess,” old-fashioned cookie dough ice cream on top of a gooey chocolate chip cookie, drizzled with hot fudge and caramel, are among sundaes featured at the shop, with milkshakes, malts, Sweetie’s Cherry Cow and ice cream flights among a variety of other treats. Prices range from $3 for a single scoop of ice cream to $12 for an old-school banana split.
Ice cream is locally sourced from Dan & Debbie’s Creamery in Ely.
While McGrath had hoped to have the soda fountain installed earlier, the timing is right with warm weather on the way and Houby Days, the annual Czech Village festival that celebrates the morel mushroom, scheduled for May 13-15.
Wick noted that a “Houby Cone,” an ice cream cone filled with red velvet ice cream, dotted with white marshmallows, will be featured during Houby Days, reminiscent of a red cap mushroom.
McGrath’s great-grandfather, who owned a general store in Atkins, Iowa, was an inspiration, of sorts, for the shop.
An image of his store from a 1915 photo can be found on a mural inside Sweet Mercantile, another reminder of that bygone era.
“I look forward to welcoming young and old down to our 1920’s themed store,” McGrath said. “Everything was lovingly curated to create an atmosphere of nostalgia.”
Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Learn how a corner grocery store returned to its roots in Cedar Rapids, and see more photos from Sweet Mercantile, below: