Not many businesses can claim to have been part of the Wenatchee community for over 125 years, but Owl Soda Fountain & Gifts have done just that.
The Owl has been around since 1890, where it began as a pharmacy until the soda fountain was added in 1926. Pam Higgins, the current owner, purchased the business in 2002 and moved it to its current location in downtown Wenatchee.
“I had worked there since I was 20,” Higgins said. “They were going to sell it off in bits and pieces and I knew that I couldn’t let that happen, so we purchased it.”
While Higgins didn’t have any idea she would end up running the Owl, the atmosphere of working there kept her interested in the business.
“It was like a family,” Higgins said. “The people were great too. I started there young, got married, left and had kids, came right back, it was just a huge part of my life. It would have been tough to leave it.”
Higgins’ involvement with the inner workings of the Owl ended up serving her well.
“Because I was so involved, I didn’t find the transition process too difficult to take over the business,” Higgins said. “I had a lot of input from the Downtown Association and we found the perfect spot, and everybody has loved this location.”
A compelling aspect of the business’ current location is its windows that allow patrons to get a view of downtown Wenatchee while enjoying a milkshake, a view that Owl employees enjoy as well.
“Even though we’re stuck here all day, we can see what’s going on,” Higgins said. “We have a man who comes in here every morning to get a coffee and he has to sit in just the right spot to look out the window. The location makes us easier to find, too. Lots of people come over the walking bridge and find us.”
Customers also enjoy the nostalgic feel of the soda fountain.
“You can’t find old-fashioned soda fountains anymore,” Higgins said. “We make great ice cream, and we create a good atmosphere.”
The consistency of the Owl’s design and products over the years attracts repeat customers that can span generations.
“We have people who come every single day during the summer. We have a man who comes in here every day and has a chocolate soda and a cherry coke,” Jerri Robinson, the assistant manager of the Owl, said. “His mother used to come in and have a cherry Coke every day, She passed away a few years ago and he carried on the tradition.”
“We have generations of customers, and there aren’t a lot of businesses who can say that,” Higgins chimed in. “There’s a couple here in a town who come here and get chocolate sodas. They have two boys who are out of college who would come and have chocolate sodas. Now, the oldest boy has a daughter who loves to come to the soda fountain to get chocolate sodas.”
The Owl doesn’t just keep its aesthetic the same, its products are part of the tradition too.
“We emphasize making everything the same way so that a customer can come in and always get the same experience,” Robinson said. “Tradition is very important to us and our customers.”
Another pull of the soda fountain is the personable nature of its staff.
“People love to visit with the staff, so we really try to get our girls to be interested in the customers and talk to them,” Higgins said. “They get very good at that, when they start they’re more quiet and shy, but after a while they just have fun with it.”
Friendly patrons make the job of being personable much easier.
New Owl employees are also taught how to count back change, which can be a challenge.
“We try to teach our girls how to count back change, and they panic over that at first,” Higgins said. “We get more compliments for our girls when they know how to count back change and customers thank us for keeping that tradition. We’ll always have that.”
“Most people love ice cream so much that we never get people in here who are grumpy or upset. Everybody’s smiling and having a good time, it’s kind of infectious,” Robinson said.
The unique style of the Owl pulls many customers from the Seattle area who have begged her to move the soda fountain to be in Seattle. Some customers come from even farther.
We had people drive up from Portland one day just to get a soda,” Robinson said. “They came rushing in so scared that we would be closed because they drove all that way.”
Robinson has been with the fountain for 25 years, moving to the new location with Higgins.
“This is such a comfortable atmosphere,” Robinson said. “So I came with her, and we’ve been working together for almost 15 years now.”
Robinson wasn’t the only thing carried over from the old location.
“Everything at the fountain came from the old location,” Higgins said. We brought everything we could from the old store, including the bar.”
In addition to bringing over all the old fixtures they could, the tile floor of the new Owl location was designed to look exactly like the old one.
While the Owl offers both a soda fountain and a gift shop, Higgins said that most of the business comes from the soda fountain.
“It’s the draw,” Higgins said. “People get so focused on the fountain they don’t always see the gifts. Some people will look around, and some just sit down on the stool and eat their ice cream.”
After being part of the business for so long, Higgins said that it’s just about time to pass the torch.
“I think that the future is bright. People love coming here,” Higgins said. “I’m looking for that person who’s willing to take over the business as its caretaker. It’s really become an icon of the downtown and I want that to be preserved.”