A Dose of Nostalgia

Old-fashioned icon SOS Drug enjoys modern-day success.

By  Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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As a child, Garrett Crane went to SOS Drug in Springville, Utah, to eat the same ice-cream cones he serves today as the store’s owner. The business, which has stood on Springville’s Main Street since 1909, is an icon of the community. Its continuity is the perfect example of an old adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The personal service and old-fashioned charm customers experience in the store have stood the test of time.

We’ve Got History

Crane was born and raised in town, graduating from Springville High School before moving to Salt Lake City to get an undergraduate degree and attend phar­macy school at the University of Utah. Just before his graduation in 2004, Crane met with Kendal Oldroyd, a family friend, pharmacist and owner of SOS Drug. Oldroyd was looking to retire and needed someone to take over the business. He wanted Crane to be that person.

“At the time, it scared the daylights out of me,” Crane says.

He took a job at the Springville Walmart pharmacy instead, and filled in for Kendal at SOS from time to time. The comparison helped Crane to learn some­thing about himself. “The more I was at SOS vs. Walmart, the more I realized SOS was more my style,” he says. “I grew impa­tient with the corporate end of the world.”

Crane longed so much for the auton­omy an independent pharmacy would allow that he told Oldroyd he’d changed his mind. Crane went to work for Kendal full time on Labor Day in 2004 while they figured out the terms of the business transfer. Six months later, SOS was his.

“Garrett is just so good with people,” says Oldroyd, who still works part-time at the pharmacy. “He belongs in a place like this. Not locked up and out of sight.”

Back in Time

D.R. Whightman, affectionately referred to as “Doc,” opened the drug store in 1909; he added a soda fountain in the mid-1940s. Whightman sold the property in 1956 to Roland Oldroyd, who passed it along to his son, Kendal, after his death in 1986.

As Crane describes it, SOS is “an old slot store,” with a layout just 20 feet wide by 60 feet deep. There’s a rear entrance with a few parking spaces in back, but most customers parallel park out front. In the storefront is an 8-foot-by-5-foot window painting that reads “Voted Best Pharmacy in Utah County,” an award from the Daily Herald, a local paper.

Walk in the front door and your eyes are drawn to the “old school” soda foun­tain on the right. Your gaze will follow nine stools at a bar to an old-fashioned cash register, still in use, at the end of the counter. Behind it sits an antique ice-cream freezer, filled with hard-serve Meadow Gold ice cream. Original soda taps are still in place, and modern Coke taps sit next to an old Coca-Cola dispenser, the kind in which syrup and carbonated water were mixed separately (this one just for display).

“We still use the soda jerks if some­one orders a chocolate soda,” Crane says. And customers often do order sodas, along with hand-mixed Iron Port, cherry phosphates, shakes, malts, sundaes, sodas, floats and coffee.

“We have the same group of six or eight guys who come in for coffee every morning and argue about politics,” Crane says. “Pretty much the reason I get out of bed in the morning is to see what the old coffee boys have in store.”

In the center of the room are two tables, at least 100 years old, with four chairs at each. The wooden seats and iron backs, twisted into heart shapes, add to the vin­tage charm. To the left are four tall display cases filled with pharmacy antiques: bot­tles, first-aid kits, scales and instruments.

As you move deeper into the store, you reach a robust selection of penny candy— 100 different varieties—scooped into bags and ready to purchase. Then the pharmacy starts, separated by a countertop with a few painted wooden shelves of OTC products, including pain relievers, cough/cold and allergy meds, laxatives, topical products, soaps and first-aid supplies.

“Your traditional c-store would prob­ably have a panic attack walking in and looking at our shelves,” says Crane, whose shelving system isn’t informed by any sort of data or strategy. But it works just fine for his needs.

“We concentrate mainly on the phar­macy, with an emphasis on the soda fountain,” he says. “We’re not trying to stall to fill a prescription with aisles and aisles of merchandise for customers to browse. Most people walk out 5 minutes later with their prescription and a root-beer float.”

If it isn’t candy or something from the soda fountain, it’s from McKesson, Crane’s wholesaler. He finds McKesson’s online ordering system easy to use, and because the company has a warehouse in Salt Lake City, stock can get to him quickly.

“Something ordered on a Thursday shows up at noon on Friday,” he says. “I don’t have to carry a deep inventory.”

That’s especially important, consid­ering how wide inventory has to be for a pharmacist. At any given time, Crane carries thousands of prescription drugs in the store.

Being in Business

Watching his father run his own con­struction company growing up, Crane knew that being a business owner would be a learning experience.

“I’ve definitely learned my business tactics from the school of hard knocks,” he says. “I’m not implementing strategies I learned going through an MBA program. I’m implementing strategies I learned diving in super-scary, head first, buying a business and seeing what I can do with it.”

But he enjoys having a full plate in life. “I would get bored if I was just working as a retail pharmacist for somebody else,” he says. “Now, I can try to provide the best medical care for people, but also try to run the most successful business I can.”

So far, Crane’s doing great, at least with the latter. Even with the down economy, SOS Drug’s profits have grown every year since he bought it. His patient count has also grown. People are cutting back on unnecessary medications, but he’s still seeing more patients each day.

“As we—cross your fingers—come into a better economic state, it’s going to benefit us to have a deeper client base,” he says.

The increased community recognition that Crane has worked toward is likely one of the reasons more people are com­ing in. Early in 2005, he created a company logo, something SOS Drug had never had before. He focuses his advertising locally, sponsoring sports teams, band concerts and parades, and tak­ing out community newspaper ads, all including the new SOS branding. He also gives out pads of coupons for free ice-cream cones, designed to look like prescriptions, to local doctors and dentists for handing out to children. It’s an SOS tradition that has been going on since the ’80s.

The store’s growth has continued even in the face of com­petition, such as when a Walgreens opened down the street in March 2006. “In certain areas of the world, that can be the kiss of death for an independent pharmacy,” Crane says. But he found the new competition in town engendered a sense com­munity pride that worked to his advantage. “Walgreens would mail coupons that said if you transfer a prescription, you’d get a $10 gift card. People would bring them in and tear them up in front of me.” Crane also attributes his store’s growth to his focus on extreme efficiency—getting customers in and out fast—and offering exceptional customer service. In a world in which insurance co-payments are the same pharmacy to pharmacy, he has to find factors other than price to set him apart.

“Whether they’re coming in for a $1 ice-cream cone or $500 worth of pre­scriptions, caring about them goes a long, long way,” he says.

Maintaining a staff that cares equally as much is equally important. Crane hires 90% of his pharmacy techs from the pool of people who started working at his soda fountain in high school. He has an on-site pharmacy tech training program, licensed by the state of Utah, so he can raise them right. “Most of them are either family friends or children of patients of ours that we’ve had in the drug store for years, people who have some sort of his­tory with us,” he says.

Symbol of Service

As a husband and father of four, Crane says one of the best things about owning SOS Drug is that it gives him the oppor­tunity to help others provide for their families. His 15-year-old daughter recently started working at the soda fountain.

That history, that sentimentality, that nostalgia, is an echo of the business itself.

Although the high dollar value of prescription drugs means the pharmacy makes up more than 95% of the busi­ness, it’s the old-fashioned soda fountain that often keeps customers coming back. It’s cute—a known hot spot for bridal photography—but more than that, it’s a symbol of the old-fashioned customer service that has allowed SOS to survive for more than a century.

“In any business, if your customer ser­vice is good, the actual product doesn’t matter much,” Crane says. “Buying a hamburger, a pack of cigarettes, whatever it is: If the people you’re dealing with are friendly and helpful, you want to give them your business.”

“We have the same group of six or eight guys who come in for coffee every morning and argue about politics. The reason I get out of bed in the morning is to see what the old coffee boys have in store.”

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