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2004 - Bob Wallace Showcases American Soda Fountain, Inc.
on "Made in Chicago" featuring
Local Companies on TV

The following article is from
By The Way Online Magazine, Fall 2002 issue:


UNWRAPPED: Soda Fountains

Check "FOOD NETWORK" Website for Air Dates

In this episode: Marc Summers explores Soda Fountains. Stop by a place straight out of yesteryear, and watch as classic counters are restored. Sign up for soda fountain summer camp, get a taste of the 'world's largest' soda flavor selection, and visit the World of Coke.

by Craig Fitzgerald

The Schy's family business the American Soda Fountain Company began life as the Chicago Soda Fountain Company under the stewardship of their grandfather, Sam Schy. A born salesman, Sam was awarded the Chicago distributorship for Liquid Carbonic, the one-time General Motors of the soda fountain business.

Known today as a massive compressed gas manufacturer, Liquid Carbonic was once according to Terry Schy world-renowned for its soda fountains and soda machines. "They had their own wood carvers and metal shops," she says, and could provide lunch-counter, snack-shop and ice-cream stand owners with "everything but the boy" to run their businesses successfully. From paper napkins to full carbonizing systems, straws to striped shirts, Liquid Carbonic owned the soda fountain business.

Bob Schy, Terry's dad, didn't intend to go into the soda fountain business. But after giving his own bicycle-repair shop a go at age 13, he eventually decided to join his father.

Around the same time that Bob joined the business, Liquid Carbonic went through a series of anti-trust lawsuits that left it unable to continue both selling carbon dioxide the fizz in a proper soda and the fountains that squirted the lively drinks. The company decided to divest itself from the fountain business, and gave the American Soda Fountain company reams of paper and materials for assuming the task.

If Sam Schy was the natural salesman, Bob Schy was the guy to make the fountains work. "He could fix anything," recalls Terry. Bob, who passed away in 1999, was personally responsible for installing soda fountains all over the Chicago area.

Bob soon found that people were willing to have soda fountains installed in their homes, so he and Sam together would muscle these huge dispensers, complete with plumbing and carbonation equipment, down into residential basements. Their customers began to shift from blue-collar restaurant owners to wealthy homeowners. "They were installing a fountain in a woman's house one afternoon," remembers Terry. "As they got to the point where the fountain needed to be finessed through the doors, the woman disappeared upstairs. After the fountain was in place, my father found her and asked her where she went. She replied, 'Well, I thought there might be swearing, so I left you alone.'"

"At one time, Chicago was a great manufacturing center," Terry explains, recounting the companies that once called the Windy City home. Ray Kroc, famous for cultivating McDonald's from a two-bit hamburger stand into a multinational corporation, got his start here. In fact, he was once the Schy family's Multi-mixer salesman.

The Schy's business changed radically with the onslaught of fast-food restaurants. As Burger King and Wendy's began to overtake the small snack shops and lunch counters, self-service started to replace the jerk behind the counter and the Schy's began to notice that their business focused more on the restoration and maintenance of old soda fountains rather than on the sale of new machines. By the late 1970s, most soda fountain manufacturers had gone out of business, leaving the Schys to fend for themselves in terms of parts supply.

"Just as they needed our expertise to get the soda fountains installed, people needed our expertise to remove the fountains, too," says Terry, explaining the family's secret to keeping a full parts stock at all times. "We'd go in and do the removal, then keep the fountain."

Schy notes that it is more often profitable for the finder of an enormous soda fountain to sell the stainless steel or aluminum as scrap than it is to seek out a collector. "Storage used to be cheap, so it was easier to find someone who stockpiled these old parts."

Thanks to nostalgia, scarcity and eBay, finding parts for these old machines is becoming difficult and expensive. "Collecting is no fun anymore," laments Terry. "But whatever comes our way is a found object and we make use of it."
American Soda Fountain's stock rooms prove that policy. Inside two rooms on the main floor and one enormous room upstairs, the Schys maintain a boneyard for all types of soda dispensers. Stacks of six- to eight-foot-long soda fountains are stored for restoration in the back rooms, while the pump mechanisms for flavors are piled to the ceiling in racks along the wall. The Schys have no less than six Hires Root Beer barrels wooden barrel-shaped soda coolers and dispensers that, restored, bring $5,000 to $6,000 each.

They find that their customers fall into three groups: the home customer that wants a soda fountain in his basement, the customer who is opening a nostalgic diner-type restaurant, and restaurant owners whose businesses haven't changed much over the years.

Today, Terry and her brother Phil send their wares all over the country. For one customer it may be as simple as a crushed fruit container for their Bastion-Blessing fountain. For another it may be a fully restored, eight-foot counter complete with a marble top. They ship and receive full soda fountains on a daily basis. "We ship a lot of stuff to California, Texas, back east and Florida," notes Terry.

She laments the modern-day trend toward impersonal chain restaurants, but is always encouraged by the dedication some people have for soda fountains. "It's a neighborhood thing. People now want to go to a destination and get something they've never had. How many people know what a good root beer float is?"