chilly January night in 2003, the Berley family was dining out for the last time before brother Eric returned to his philosophy studies at William & Mary the following day. Just over a year before, the Berleys had purchased a turn-of-the-century building in the heart of Old City in Philadelphia at 116 Market Street. Reflecting on the past year of renovations to the apartments, conversation eventually turned to the first floor store, then occupied by Eroticakes. Looking past evocative lollipops and biologically inspired baked goods, an observer might have noticed the wonderful decorative tin walls & ceilings. Or, if shamelessly glancing down, the original porcelain mosaic tile floor might have caught a customer’s eye. It is these very architectural details that inspired brother Ryan to float the idea of building an authentic ice cream parlor and soda fountain that evening. After weeks of thinking and talking, Ryan and Eric began to seriously consider the venture that was suggested as a lark. Eric was graduating from William & Mary College that spring with no hard plans for the future. Ryan was continuing his work as an antiques trader and consultant to Freeman’s auction house, although he was feeling stagnant and anxious to do something different.
Yet it wasn’t just happenstance that the Berley boys considered recreating an old soda fountain. Their mother, Carole, began selling antiques out of their home in Media in 1976, just after Ryan was born. Family trips were peppered with antique shops, outdoor flea markets and trips to historical sites as the Berleys toured America. Mom and dad started collecting antiques on their honeymoon, gravitating toward the artistry of old advertising tins and signs. They decorated their dining room in an ice cream parlor motif, complete with stained glass, wire-back chairs and even an old peanut roaster! Twenty-eight years, two barns and thousands of antiques later, the Berleys are still committed collectors. Many of these objects would sit dusty and dormant until destiny called…
Fast-forward to Summer 2003 when Eric carries his newly-minted diploma up to New York state where a family connection brings him to study the business under an expert ice cream chef and mentor. Following a couple of months intensive ice cream making experience and more than a couple of botched batches of Rocky Road, Eric returns to Philadelphia where he and Ryan start writing a business plan for what would be called “The Franklin Fountain.” The boys were inspired by a marble portrait of Benjamin Franklin they had seen at an exhibition of sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon that spring. Dr. Franklin, civic businessman, thinker and experimenter, began his adult life just steps away from 116 Market Street, where Ryan and Eric were beginning theirs. Following a turn-of-the-century precedent for naming businesses after the great man, Franklin’s legacy proved a worthy namesake for the soda fountain.
Months of planning ensued as well as a road trip to the National Ice Cream Retailer’s Convention in New Orleans. The boys made a number of stops along the way at anything that smelled like an old soda fountain through West Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. Their experience at the convention was filled with industry wisdom, inspiration and a whole lot of incredibly rich ice cream! While Eric continued his work as a tour guide at Christ Church and the burial grounds (resting place of B.F. himself), Ryan was wheeling and dealing antiques, searching out objects to create the fountain. More food for thought came at the annual convention of the Ice Screamers, a passionate international group dedicated to preserving the history of ice cream and soda fountains through collecting related memorabilia. As the boys read and absorbed information, they began to make connections between the values of the early soda fountains and those that Franklin advocated: craftsmanship, social responsibility and experimentation to better serve the people.
By January of 2004, the forces were in place to begin construction of the fountain. With an anticipated opening of July 1st, Ryan and Eric set out in search of city and local officials to validate their plan. Zoning was passed. Plumbers and electricians were interviewed. The grueling process of sign design and approval was begun. Eight solid months of 12 to 14-hour days working at the site ensued along with the help of Jack, the Berley’s trusted handyman. Coordinating meetings. Wading through red tape. Eric’s patience was tested time and again with our first employee, Serge, who was hired and eventually fired. Patching, priming and painting. Going to City Hall. Making phone calls. The boys found Fran the plumber and Paul the electrician who shared their vision for a quality job done right. Supporting the floor joists. Building a bathroom. As the 1st of July approached it seemed apparent that the Franklin Fountain would not be open. Family from the Boston area and Media helped pass out samples on Market Street and continue construction work as the nation’s birthday came and went. Eric and Ryan were realizing that being well-built meant things took much longer than expected. Repairing tile work. Matching moldings. Polishing marble. INTEGRITY is everything. With mountains of help from family, friends and Jack, signs were painted and the final equipment placed as September wound down.
The Franklin Fountain quietly opened the last week of the summer 2004. One of our early customers said that opening a business was like having a baby. How very true. As with a well-loved child, we have come a long way investing every ounce of our time, money and energy into The Franklin Fountain. As our business grows organically, we will continue to exert our full energies to make the fountain a democratic place for all people to enjoy and interact in the larger community of Old City. Above all, we are dedicated to our overriding purpose hanging in the shop under a portrait of Dr. Franklin:
The Franklin Fountain aims to serve an experience steeped in ideals, drizzled with drollery, and sprinkled with the forgotten flavors of the American past.