You'll see a lot of people smiling at Sweet Creams Soda Shop.
Deb Rowe's grandfather, Ted, built the three-story structure at 700 S. Main St. in 1900 and opened Rowe Saloon. When Prohibition came, it was a soda shop until 1931, when Ted died of tuberculosis. After that it was more than a dozen things, including a license bureau, tire store and Elkhart Sanitary Fish Market. It lost its third floor to a fire in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
It had been vacant for 18 years when Rowe purchased it two years ago. She taught art classes, opened a frame shop and told her daughters if they needed to, they could always sell ice cream.
She started working on opening a soda shop in August.
She found a fountain from the 1940s in New York. She became the easternmost vendor of Valpo Velvet, an ice cream a family dairy has been producing since 1947 in northwest Indiana.
She opened Valentine's Day, thinking she'd sell soup and hot dogs with the ice cream and sodas until the weather warmed. Now it looks like she'll keep making hot food.
"I've never had less than 20 people a day in here," she said, noting her surprise at how busy she has been.
She wanted to sell ice cream. But she had other goals.
Rowe wants to teach teenagers the art of conversation as their culture promotes the art of texting.
She wants to make people feel good. And she's really good at that.
Sweet Creams isn't the kind of place where you can duck in the door and slip into one of the 30 seats unnoticed. Rowe or her daughter, Lisa Adkins, ask you how you're doing, what you want to eat and almost goad you toward smiling, even if you hadn't felt like it.
"I don't know a stranger," Rowe said. "I just feel like everyone coming through the door is family."
People who work or live downtown are finding her, and everyone seems to smile as they order and eat. "Have you ever seen anybody be grouchy and eat ice cream at the same time?" she asked.
The Vienna Beef hot dogs ($2.25 or $3 with special toppings) are good, though the buns could use a better steaming. The Coney dog with a slightly spice Coney sauce, onions and mustard is as close as I've come to finding a replacement for the chili dogs I love from Jess' Quick Lunch in Harrisonburg, Va. The Monte Cristo with Swiss cheese and strawberry jelly is odd but strangely good and so far no one has returned one for something else, though Rowe holds that option out to everyone who orders one. The Chicago dog has the authentic sport peppers, pickle, tomato and celery salt. And that makes me very happy.
Rowe recently added an authentic Polish sausage that they serve with grilled onions and a sauce of mayonnaise and horseradish ($4.75).
The soups are a bargain at $1 a cup or $2 a bowl. She's working on establishing a certain soup for each day of the week. So far, the creamy garlic soup on Monday and potato soup with rivels on Thursdays are winners. The backyard barbecue soup with pork and barbecue sauce on Wednesday had dry pork and I decided I don't need to taste barbecue sauce in my soup.
At breakfast, Rowe is serving baked oatmeal ($2), which some are ordering with frozen yogurt and caramel. In addition, she has eggs, breakfast parfaits and the smoked sausage roll from Rise & Roll Bakery.
I hadn't had Valpo Velvet until I tried it at Sweet Creams. It's a very creamy, rich ice cream that is far superior to most out there. The sherbets are simply outstanding, and the flavors such as Coffee Espresso Fudge Oreo are rich and luscious. And like the other things on the menu, the prices are a bargain. A generous scoop is $1.50 and a waffle cone with a scoop is just $2.25, though the banana split ranges up to $6.
Aside from the ice cream, the soda fountain has phosphates including chocolate and green river for $2.75.
The setting in the historic building is nice. Huge front windows let in glorious light. In fact, sitting in the front window on a sunny day can make you feel a bit like a rotisserie chicken, which feels good as winter ends. The tin ceiling, brick and hardwood floors create a nice setting.
But it's Rowe's warmth that's really remarkable. One customer commented after one visit that he felt like a regular.
Alongside the ice cream and hot dogs, Rowe's making food from scratch on home kitchen equipment. The coleslaw and soups are hers. The building, with its history in her family, is hers. And because of that, she has room to grow. She can install restaurant-grade equipment if she needs it, she said.
She's brought smiles to South Main Street. "People just smile," she said of her customers.
The ice cream may be part of that. But most of it is because of her and her family.
* John's Bagels, 109 W. Lexington Ave., Elkhart, is closing this week in Elkhart. The last day is Friday, according to Joe Kramer, who has been operating the business with his family. Joe said he's moving somewhere to Goshen to focus on wholesale sales of the baked items. Chris Kramer, who has been roasting the coffee in the basement, is also looking for another spot to roast the Blue Moon Coffee.
* Bill's Bar-B-Que, 1592 W. Franklin, Elkhart, expanded its hours and is open 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Owner Alfred Lee said customers have been glad he reopened and business is good.
* McCarthy's on the Riverwalk, 333 NIBCO Parkway, is starting Sunday brunch. The first day was to be Sunday. Breakfast and lunch items will be served from the menu from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekly.
* A number of places will be offering corned beef and cabbage and green beer on Wednesday, including Crimaldi's. Owner Mike Crimaldi said a plate of the Irish-American standby will be $7.95 at lunch or dinner. Constant Spring in Goshen will celebrate its fourth anniversary with corned beef and cabbage and the tapping of a keg of Bell's Batch 9,000, according to owner Jason Oswald.
* The Vine is having an April 1 wine tasting at its South Bend location downtown. Approximately 60 wines will be available, along with light appetizers, for $20 per person. Wines will be available for sale, and a portion of the proceeds will go to Go Red for Women Campaign of the American Heart Association, according to a press release. Information: 234-9463
* 523 Tap & Grill had its first wine dinner last week to help mark its first anniversary. The seven-course meal Chef Jamie Amador and his staff prepared for 38 people was wonderful. The highlight for me was the seared sea scallops on parmesan polenta with maple beurre blanc, though the Culver Duck breast and pork tenderloin were also good. The dessert of goat cheese ice cream with port fig sauce and an oatmeal tuile cookie was amazing.
IF YOU GO
What: Sweet Creams Soda Shop
Where: 700 S. Main St., Elkhart
Fare: Ice cream, soups, sandwiches, as well as breakfast items
Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday
Details: Credit cards accepted; fan page on Facebook has information on daily specials.