End of an era: Drugstore lunch counter in Benson to close Tuesday
BENSON -- As regulars slide into their favorite booth or straddle a stool at the lunch counter, a waitress carrying a pot of coffee is quick to arrive to dispense a hot brew and take orders for the signature Big Brave special of a burger, fries a...
BENSON - As regulars slide into their favorite booth or straddle a stool at the lunch counter, a waitress carrying a pot of coffee is quick to arrive to dispense a hot brew and take orders for the signature Big Brave special of a burger, fries and malt - appropriately named after the Benson Braves mascot.
In the background, shoppers peruse aisles and pharmacists fill a long list of prescriptions, give vaccinations and help customers enroll in Medicare.
This everyday scene at Breen's Fountain has been taking place for over 50 years in the back of Breen's Thrifty White Pharmacy in downtown Benson, which hosts one of the last remaining drugstore lunch counters in the region.
But on Tuesday, the Fountain will close and a community tradition will end.
"We've thought about it for a long time. Talked about it for a long time. Lost sleep over it for a long time," said Laree Breen, who owns the second-generation family drugstore with her husband, Vyke Breen. "It was not an easy decision."
The lunch counter was started in the early 1960s when the original owners, David and Gertrude Breen, moved their drugstore to the current location on Pacific Avenue.
"It was a different time," said Laree Breen, of the popularity of the drugstore lunch counter that existed before lunch and coffee could be found in gas stations and grocery stores and before fast-food became a way of life.
She said business at the Fountain had been dwindling for some time.
That was combined with a need to expand services and staff at the growing pharmacy, which will soon include the Breen's youngest daughter, Ginger, as its newest pharmacist.
The lunch counter space will be transformed into rooms where the pharmacists can meet privately with customers for medication therapy management, vaccinations and other services provided by the full-service pharmacy.
"The industry is just changing so much," said Laree Breen. "It's not just filling prescriptions."
While the expansion - and having their daughter join the business - is great news, it didn't make the decision to close the lunch counter any easier.
"We eat here every day. And our kids grew up in the Fountain waitressing," Laree Breen said.
"We've lost a lot of sleep over this deal of having to close the Fountain," said Vyke Breen, who followed in his father's footsteps as a pharmacist and is excited to work with his own daughter in the business.
The Breens said they will miss the generations of customers and the good-natured banter shared over good - inexpensive - food.
"We're really going to miss the regulars," said Laree Breen.
"Seeing Charlie twice a day. And Marilyn's husband just passed away so putting your arm around her. And the life stories that you see with people," she said. "We know their personal lives. They know our personal lives."
News that the Fountain is closing hit customers hard.
"I don't know what we're going to do," said Lois Hughes, a regular at the Fountain. "You'll never get anything cheaper than here."
Milton Reich, a farmer who said he eats at the Fountain "more than I should," said he usually eats the daily lunch special, which is cooked up by his sister Vivian Clark who's been cooking at the Fountain for nearly 19 years.
But what Reich really likes is the camaraderie and talking with the other diners.
"I got to meet a lot of people that I didn't know before over these years," he said. "It's kind of sad. But things change," he said of the upcoming closure.
Laura Johnson Edman reminisced about getting a Big Brave special for 20 cents back when she was a Benson Brave in high school and going to the Fountain for an after-school snack and lunch on Saturdays was what everyone did.
Closing the Fountain means the Breens will also have to find a new place to eat. Most days the couple eats at least one, and sometimes two, meals at the lunch counter.
The same is true for Jerry Dubbels, another full-time pharmacist at the drugstore.
"It was kind of nice when I opened (the store) in the morning to have my breakfast here," he said. "And then in the afternoon, it's nice to walk a few feet and have my dinner, too. It's going to be a change," said Dubbels, who thinks he may start bringing a sack lunch when the Fountain closes.
Vyke Breen said he's been talking one-on-one with the regular customers to explain why they made the decision to close the Fountain.
Closing the lunch counter is an end of an era, he said, but it has to happen.
"We'll be expanding our pharmacy and expanding our care," he said. "We need that - so it's going to work out."