Rennie’s retrospection: Madison’s first drugstore transformed into a luncheonette

Rennebohm drugstores dominated the market
Rennie’s retrospection: Madison’s first drugstore transformed into a luncheonette

The modern drugstore stocks just about everything. Yet what was once a key component is now rarely found: sit-down food service. The road to eating in a pharmacy began in 1825 when Philadelphia druggist Elias Durand started to dispense soda water as a cure for indigestion. Then the drugstore changed forever in 1886 when Dr. John Stith Pemberton formulated a secret elixir called Coca-Cola and marketed it at Atlanta’s Jacobs’ Pharmacy. Soda fountains behind a counter with stools appeared soon after the turn of the century. There, soda jerks – an affectionate term for the attendants – dispensed all sorts of fizzy drinks made from flavored syrup and carbonated water. Ice cream was added to the menu along with milkshakes, malts, sundaes and banana splits. The soda fountain became a major draw for drugstores everywhere. It was inevitable that the stores would serve food – sandwiches at first and eventually plate lunches. The soda fountain became the luncheonette. In many towns, it was not only a spot to grab a quick bite, but also to swap gossip and nurture romance.

Oscar Rennebohm opened his first drugstore in Madison in 1925. It was so successful that he would eventually go on to own 30 locations (and be elected governor of Wisconsin in 1948). The Rennebohm chain dominated the market here until it was sold to Walgreens in 1980.

In the 1950s and ’60s, a running joke was that the statue on top of the Capitol dome was actually Mrs. Rennebohm pointing to the location of her husband’s next store.

It’s impossible to remember Rennie’s, as it was commonly and fondly known, without thinking about food. For students on campus, shoppers on Capitol Square, or 10-year-olds headed to a double feature at the Orpheum Theater, it was the go-to place for breakfast or lunch. Probably the most beloved specialty was the grilled Danish, an ordinary sweet roll that was magically transformed after being slathered in butter and flipped on the grill. But the Big Bucky Burger (an ancestor of the Big Mac), gooey grilled cheese sandwich, bland chili like Mom used to make, German chocolate cake and brownie à la mode all had their admirers. Admittedly, it’s difficult for me to accept that I would swoon nostalgic for sitting on a stool at a Formica counter eating off a pink plastic plate under unforgiving fluorescent lighting. I do miss the smell – a peculiar hybrid aroma of grilled burgers, hot fat and coffee.

Even before the Rennebohm name disappeared from the door, restaurants in drugstores had gone the way of 10-cent sodas and 49-cent combo platters, done in by the tsunami of fast food joints that landed in the 1960s. The space they took up became a more valuable commodity for selling sunscreen, SpaghettiOs and Snuggies. You can still get a Coke there, but today it comes in a big plastic bottle rather than a little paper cone sitting in a metal holder. Worst of all, no one goes to the drugstore anymore just to hang out, and for good reason.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.