Fair Oaks Pharmacy Offers a Taste of Nostalgia Served with a Smile

They don’t make them like they used to. It’s a phrase used often enough that it’s become a saying. But in Los Angeles, you can’t say it about milkshakes, malts, sodas, and… well, medications, oddly enough. At least not while Fair Oaks Pharmacy is still opening its doors to the South Pasadena community. Its neon radiance punctuates a strip of Route 66, beckoning tourists, travelers, and regulars alike to come inside and remember. Remember a time when “jerk” wasn’t an insult. Remember the sour sting of cherry phosphate on your tongue. Maybe even remember what it was like to be a kid. JohnHart Media sat down with Brandon Shahniani, one of the owners of Fair Oaks Pharmacy, for our latest Community Spotlight video. He told us over sips of popcorn milkshakes that time travel is indeed possible. You don’t even need a machine. Just a 108-year-old pharmacy. 

The Days of the South Pasadena Pharmacy

The Fair Oaks Pharmacy first opened its doors in 1915 as the South Pasadena Pharmacy when it was a contemporary drugstore, unlike the vibrant time capsule it is today. However, it still had its eccentricities; most notable among them an entrepreneurial woman as its founder. Gertrude Ozmun bravely bucked the conventions of the time by starting her own business. She obviously knew what she was doing, because the soda jerks are still slinging phosphates under its banner today, albeit under the direction of the Shahniani family. 

Brandon Shahniani’s parents purchased the Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain in 2005 when he and his brother, Ash, were just children. In those days, their father managed the front of the house while their mother, Zahra, ran the pharmacy. While Zahra remains involved in the pharmacy, Brandon and Ash took over the day-to-day management of the establishment in 2018. 

“The whole building is like an old-timey convenience store,” Brandon Shahniani proudly explained to the JohnHart Media team. On a visit to the Fair Oaks Pharmacy, you can pick up medication, grab a retro toy for the kid (or big kid) in your life, or even try one of the virtually limitless sodas from their in-house soda fountain. And it’s this soda fountain, a working relic of small-town midcentury life, that’s perhaps the biggest draw to the South Pasadena community staple. 

What is a Soda Fountain?

“A soda fountain is literally a fountain that serves soda,” explains Shahniani. But if you’ve never seen one in action, it might be easier for you to simply stop by and experience it for yourself. Fair Oaks Pharmacy serves up all manner of handmade refreshments: ice cream, milkshakes, malts, and, of course, sodas. But thanks to the soda fountain, their soda jerks can whip up custom soda and ice creams, combining a generous menu of flavors to delightful effect. Just imagine combining mint and cherry flavors for a… well, actually, maybe you should just leave it to the professionals at Fair Oaks Pharmacy. 

If you’re having trouble choosing from their vast menu (you wouldn’t be the first) one of their hand-picked soda jerks is sure to help you with a winning suggestion. What’s a soda jerk? “It’s basically what they call the people working behind the soda fountain,” explains Shahniani.  “They just kind of know what they’re doing and kind of take you under their wing and sort of just take you through time through the soda fountain experience.” It may sound insulting, but “jerk” is a reference to the motion regularly employed by the soda jerks of “jerking” the fountain’s levers to dispense beverages from the fountain.

The Makings of a Quality Soda Jerk

Just as Fair Oaks Pharmacy’s soda jerks handmake the sweet treats they sling to armies of guests every day, Shahniani and his family carefully curate the talent behind the fountain. He admits that experience isn’t the most important factor for soda jerk hopefuls. Rather, he considers personality; particularly someone who can light up a room with an “old-timey” personality that recounts the golden years of an idealized dream of the 1950s.

Though a Fair Oaks Pharmacy soda jerk is tasked with crafting everything from malts to ice cream sundaes, Shahniani admits that there is one menu item that attracts particular attention from new and veteran visitors alike. “I would say our most special item here is probably the phosphate soda,” he acknowledges. This is soda with a kick of phosphoric acid compounded right in their pharmacy. The phosphoric acid contributes to a tangy, sour splash that was all the rage in bygone eras. When you walk through the doors of Fair Oaks Pharmacy, those eras are so close you can literally taste them. 

The Benefits of a Compounding Pharmacy

At its heart, though, Fair Oaks Pharmacy is just that… a pharmacy. But even an experience as menial as picking up medication gets amplified through the Fair Oaks experience. Most pharmacies are simply dispensaries for medication. They obtain medicines from a manufacturer, then measure them out and distribute them in pharmacy packaging. Fair Oaks Pharmacy does this as well, but they offer an added level of customized service that Big Pharma just can’t match. 

Shahniani explains that, as a compounding pharmacy, they can create unique dosages… and even flavors. But humans aren’t the only ones getting special treatment. “Some of our biggest customers are pets,” admits Shahniani. Fair Oaks Pharmacy works with vet clinics to prepare specially designed tuna-flavored medications for finicky felines or liver-flavored medicines for picky pooches. 

Time Touring Through Fair Oaks Pharmacy

Ultimately, much of what sets Fair Oaks Pharmacy apart from your local Rite Aid, CVS, or Walgreens is its conscientiously curated ambiance. “Once you step through the doors you are really just… time traveling,” Shahniani summarizes after a moment of contemplation. He cites the wood paneling on the walls, the kitschy tile, and the buzz of the neon as integral to a feeling of comfort his guests have come to rely on over the years. For the Shahniani family, it’s not enough to maintain a structure. They’re committed to preserving the feeling that comes with it. And Brandon Shahniani takes this cultural stewardship seriously. 

Though Fair Oaks Pharmacy shows an obvious partiality to the 1950s, they’ve recently extended their nostalgic curation to other decades of America’s past. They’re calling it Pop Fair Oaks Pharmacy; a veritable stroll through time. “We thought it would be fun to kind of step out of the ‘50s and maybe get to experience some of the other decades,” explains Shahniani. 

The journey starts in a recreation of a 1950s kitchen but continues on through the following decades, ending in the ‘90s. Through each period, products that capture the zeitgeist of that time are available for purchase. Shahniani points out the convenience for customers shopping for gifts that are certain to stir the embers of nostalgia. Further reinforcing their loyalty to the past, Fair Oaks Pharmacy even has a museum of sorts in the back. It’s loaded with branded memorabilia and store-specific artifacts dating back to the ‘40s.

Neighbors in Place and Time

After touring Fair Oaks Pharmacy, it becomes clear that the Shahniani family loves nothing more than the past. But that’s not exactly accurate. Brandon Shahniani points out that, at the end of the day, he’s prouder of nothing more than the bonds he shares with his regular customers. But as he highlights, even this appreciation is linked to the passing of time. “I grew up here,” he says. “My parents bought the place when I was just six years old, and a lot of our customers have been here for that long. Not a lot of people get to have that experience where they get to grow up with their customers. It means the world to me.”

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