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New Cedar Rapids ice cream shop, soda fountain brings old nostalgia to Czech Village
Sweetie’s Ice Cream Parlor opens in time for summer treats
CEDAR RAPIDS — The newest parlor in the Czech Village is the cherry on top of a district that seems to have everything else.
Near the corner of C Street SW and 16th Avenue SW, Sweetie’s Ice Cream Parlor doesn’t just sell scoops of ice cream or old-fashioned sodas — it evokes a connection to the past through the sights and tastes of childhood memories.
With its 1920s look, Sweetie’s Ice Cream Parlor calls back to a time when most customers today weren’t alive. But the addition to Sweet Mercantile Soda Fountain & Candy Shop, next door at 98 16th Ave. SW, brings to life a turn-of-the-century vision that transcends age for anyone with a sweet tooth.
Renovated from the ground up with an aesthetic that honors the building’s history, Sweetie’s Ice Cream Parlor opened May 5, almost eight months after owner Mary Kay McGrath opened Sweet Mercantile on the corner.
If you go:
What: Sweetie’s Ice Cream Parlor and Sweet Mercantile Soda Fountain & Candy Shop
Where: 98 16th Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids
Hours: Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Phone: (319) 200-7766
“They really take people back to a different time,” said Sarah Wick, general manager. “That’s what she’s trying to create — that atmosphere of nostalgia and creating those memories.”
McGrath, a property owner who has had a hand in revitalizing the NewBo and Czech Village districts by bringing in new restaurants, cafes, retail and novel AIRBNB apartments, said an old-fashioned ice cream shop and soda fountain was just what the neighborhood needed to round out its offerings — a family-oriented destination.
“I thought what better thing than a toy store and soda fountain,” McGrath said. “It was nostalgia for me. I grew up with a soda fountain and it was just such a great memory having all the drinks made for you.”
With a nod to its past in every detail, the parlor has recreated the joys of times gone by with mostly secondhand furnishings under the original copper ceiling — from the booths and bar stools to light fixtures and the soda fountain itself.
The centerpiece of the parlor is Babi, the refurbished soda fountain named after the Czech word for grandmother. Babi was refurbished by American Soda Fountain in Chicago, which is “the only game in town” when it comes to old soda fountains, Wick said.
Babi was married in the Czech Village shop to a wooden bar sourced from a Galena, Ill., winery. The pair make a couple that looks like they were meant to be together, with similar styles close to the turn of the 20th century.
At Sweeties, Dan & Debbie’s ice cream from Ely is available in a rotating selection of flavors, in addition to exclusive custom flavors like the red velvet and marshmallow flavor that looks like a red-capped mushroom when scooped into a cone — made for Houby Days. The creamery is now developing a cherry ice cream just for Sweetie’s.
Creative sundaes like the Cherry Kolache and old-fashioned sodas in a variety of flavors are served in glass dishes that don’t break character.
Next door at the candy shop, customers can get pints of Dan & Debbie’s to go — an unusual find in retail outside of Ely — alongside a curated selection of old-fashioned candy brands not found in big box stores. Even for specialized retail, the brands can be hard to track down, Wick said.
In the space formerly home to a meat market, grocery store, appliance store and, most recently, The Create Exchange, a mural-sized photo of McGrath’s great-grandfather at his Atkins mercantile in 1915 keeps watch over the register. Photos along the walls showing what the area used to look like give a sense of history.
Like the ice cream parlor, the candy serves an experience that goes beyond a purchase of Teaberry gum or wax candy lips.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, I remember getting these at the swimming pool,’ or ‘I remember these at the concession stand at the baseball game,’ ” Wick said. “They kind of go back to whatever they were doing when they were a kid, and tell stories to their grandchildren.”
With a reprieve of comfort, the visceral reaction brought by nostalgia is a meaningful experience that brings generations together in the space.
“There haven’t been a lot of family-friendly places opening down here,” said Wick, former museum store director for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. “This attracts more of that multigenerational group to come down to this area and see all the great new shops that have opened here.”
McGrath, 67, recalls a time when at least two drugstores in Czech Village had soda fountains: Ted’s Pharmacy, where Bob Schaffer’s Czech Cottage now stands, and Rink’s Drugstore, where Hospoda now serves pizza and beer. But despite growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, she wanted to make Sweetie’s a 1920s themed parlor.
“It just begged for the old design because it’s such a beautiful old building,” she said. “It really was to complement the design and age of the building for preservation.”
And like the soda fountains and parlor she enjoyed, she hopes to spark the smiles in children that make the business more than dollars and cents.
“It’s so gratifying to see kids happy,” McGrath said. “It’s an outing.”
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