Sitting in the heart of downtown Ste. Genevieve is Sara’s Ice Cream, and when you step inside it’s like a nostalgia trip. From top to bottom, the shop is decked out with vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia, antique malt mixers and old photographs. But in the center of the shop is the main attraction--a stainless steel Bastian Blessing soda fountain from the 1930s.
“Every year we turn it on hoping to get that reassuring grunt when that compressor kicks in and it does,” said Sara Menard, owner of Sara’s Ice Cream.
For the past 35 years, Menard and her soda jerks have been serving up ice cream cones, vanilla phosphates and her signature chocolate malts that are guaranteed to leave you with a sugar high. But ice cream was the last thing on her mind when she decided to buy the then vacant building on a whim back in ‘80s.
“One day I just said ‘I think I'll buy that building,’ with no thought in mind other than I'm gonna buy that building,” Menard said. “I mean talk about no planning.”
As luck would have it, a pharmacy posted an ad in the newspaper for someone to buy their old-fashioned soda fountain. With a nudge from her dad, she grabbed her checkbook and bought it. But she had one problem.
“‘What do we do with a soda fountain,’” Menard said. “He said 'we're gonna put it in that building you bought you smart aleck and open an ice cream shop.' I said 'okay, how do we do that?' He said 'I'll show you.'”
And Sara’s Ice Cream was born. But through the years, Sara’s Ice Cream has become more than just another ice cream shop. It’s a place of mentorship.
“You learn more than just how to make ice cream,” said Bryce Palmer a soda jerk at Sara’s Ice Cream. “You learn ways of life.”
William Palmer is Bryce’s father. He said teens that work at Sara’s Ice Cream learn how to be an adult for the first time.
“[They] learn life skills,” Palmer said. “They learn more than you learn at your regular 9 to 5 job.”
Palmer’s relationship with Menard is unique. Not only was she his high school teacher, but he married one of her original soda jerks.
With more than 40 years of teaching under her belt, Menard has a knack for getting through to her soda jerks. Whether it be teaching them how to jerk a soda fountain and mix a malt or wash the windows, she always does it with a sense of humor.
“If I'm not in a classroom there are still lessons to be learned,” Menard said. “And so, I'm still teaching the soda jerks. As an English teacher I still correct their grammar every time something ridiculous comes out of their mouths. It's like 'um no, say that again.'”
Often times the teens who work for Menard are newbies to the workforce, and her ice cream parlor is a place where they learn the basic skills to maneuver the real world.
“First time they understand anything about taxes, or social security, or how much money do you make, and how much money gets withheld from your check, and what happens to that at the end of the year,” Menard said. “But it's also the first time that in many cases that people have put total 100 percent trust in them.”
This is something Mickey Koetting and her sons know all too well. Koetting is a longtime friend of Menard’s, and her now adult sons were soda jerks. Koetting said Menard taught her sons the value of hard work. A lesson they haven’t forgotten.
“They've never lost that idea that they work at a job to the utmost, and they do the very best that they can,” Koetting said. “And so, I'm so grateful to her for doing that.”
And years later, Menard has still managed to have that impact. Menard said one time a former soda jerk came back with his wife just to serve up some ice cream for fun.
“He was talking to his wife,” Menard said. “'Please let me wait on just one more person. Chris we have to leave. Please one more person.' And she looked and she said 'those customers have no idea that's a pediatrician making their ice cream cones.' I said 'no, but he wants to do it.'”
Menard doesn’t mind, because she knows when they get behind that soda fountain they’re home.