Step into history. A 1930’s era experience is just around the corner. Hot fudge, marshmallow fluff, and sprinkles are waiting to top off your hand-crafted dessert. Listen to your favorite oldies and spin around in a stool at a classic soda fountain bar. You’ll be met with fresh flowers and friendly service that will make you grin. You might think that the Phoenix Pharmacy & Fountain is just like any other ice cream joint, but it’s not. It’s a truly special place filled with creativity and true Knoxville spirit. Sit down, stay awhile and let me give you the scoop on it!
Ron and Nolan Sherrill are the father-son duo behind the Phoenix Pharmacy & Fountain which opened 2 years ago. “Everybody has their own idea of their soda fountain,” Nolan shared with me. “It’s the Max in Saved by the Bell, or Pops in Riverdale.” For his family it was Trowbridges in Florence, AL, a place his grandparents took him over and over. The American soda fountain dates back to the early 1900’s and was known for being the gathering place in local communities. Neighbors, families, and friends would come together to share life and probably a laugh or two over ice cream sundaes. The Sherrills wanted Knoxville to have a space like that. After years and years of looking for the right space, a historic storefront on Gay Street opened up that was the perfect fit.
The storefront used to be Fowler’s Furniture for 63 years and it was the first building reconstructed after the 1897 fire. Nolan shared that they really let the space speak to them about what it wanted to be. It didn’t feel like it wanted to be a modern soda fountain or even a 1950’s one. The original brick, hardwood floors, and space spoke to them of the 1930’s era. They honored the space and you can feel a historical presence when you step in the door that reminds you of the 1930’s, a simpler time.
With the right space, Nolan left his full-time job in Washington and joined his father to start the wild venture of opening a business together. The planning, design, and developing would not have been possible without help from Peter Freeman of Brooklyn Farmacy & Fountain, the pioneer of the soda fountain revival. His expertise, mentorship, and friendship is what pushed them forward to opening! Nolan also credits a lot of Phoenix’s success to their family history. “A lot of what we are doing here is related to what is in my blood,” he shared. “My dad has always been an incredible entrepreneur. His dad ran a gas station and convenience store in front of their house. I grew up with grandmothers who always loved to cook for people.” I love seeing someone like Nolan create their own unique path where it is proudly a reflection of their family. In charge of the fountain, he is bringing fresh creativity and authentic vision allowing Phoenix thrive in this growing city! Goodness, his magic-makers are shaking and banana-splitting for a few thousand people every weekend BECAUSE there is something special in the menu and the vibe he helped create.
Even just reading the menu is exciting because it’s so elaborate and fun! It gets your taste buds moving for sure! The sundaes are decadent with all kinds of toppings – like the Afternoon Special Sundae that has a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on a bed of rice krispies, covered in nutella, and topped with house-made marshmallow fluff. Although Nolan didn’t go to culinary school, he has a true knack for crafting creative menu items. “My dad plays piano by ear and I liken this to that. I can taste the food before I make it. I can see something before it is finished,” he shared. The items come from his creative intuition and from his life experiences. My personal favorite sundae is the Breakfast at Brennan’s which he created based off of the well-known New Orleans restaurant called Brennan’s, the birthplace of bananas foster. Growing up he spent a lot of time there as a kid and then joined his college girlfriend’s family who had a table reserved there. So, this sundae pays tribute to his experiences and has a local white whiskey instead of brandy, bananas, caramel, vanilla bean ice cream, and whip cream on top. The best part is watching the bananas get torched before they slide it over to you at the bar. YUM!
There’s so many other sundae specials with stories like the Great Smoky Mountain with Sinclair’s Smoked Nib Brittle or the Cookie Monster which is perfect for kids. There’s the 38-Special with a chocolate and orange combination paying tribute to the Vols and an inside joke with his friend Seth Reagan who was number 38. I haven’t even mentioned the craft sodas or milkshakes! Like I said, the menu is an adventure even just to read! You need to go see it for yourself.
Everything about this place is authentic – it’s all homemade, except for the nuts, cherries and sprinkles. All the ice cream is made fresh and oh my goodness go and try for yourself the homemade peanut butter sauce and the marshmallow fluff. The pharmacy area is fully-operating and literally is unlike any drugstore I’ve ever been in, authentic through and through! Co-owners Brad and Hannah Blackwell run that side of the business and have done an incredible job. Not only are the ingredients and service authentic, but the whole decor and vibe of the space is pure and original. The hand-crafted wooden bar is the perfect centerpiece with a vintage antebellum chandelier above it. The iron stools were made by local artist Kelly Brown and the hardwood floors date back to 1899. There is Tennessee stone marble to eat on and the perfect “Drugs” sign lit up in green that Nolan found American-Pickers style from an old drugstore in Rutledge. There are even local handmade toys and goodies for sale. I love what Nolan said, “All the pieces can live on and have a story they are telling.”
One of the coolest parts of what Nolan is doing with his creative and authentic vibe is collaborations. New2Knox is having a social there May 17th – come join us to make some new friends! SoFarKnox just had a secret show there which was AMAZING. My favorite part was when one of the singers thanked Nolan by saying, “He looked at our songs and created a sundae based off of one. I almost cried. So, now I’m gonna play Miss Olivia – you can listen to it and eat it all at the same time!” 🙂 It was adorable! Nolan also did a collaboration with Hexagon Brewing and Knoxville Weekend. On usual weeks, the fountain uses Status Dough doughnuts for one of their sundaes and local farms for produce. At various events around the city, you can find their new bicycle scoop cart – how cool is that?!? Also, this summer they will be hosting a Summer Cooking School, taking kids out to the farmer’s market and coming back to create desserts with local ingredients. From creative collaborations and investing in our community, Nolan and his team at the Phoenix Fountain are helping Knoxville continue to move forward!
I love my city so much and it’s really cool to get to hear from one of our movers and shakers, someone who is pushing our city forward to a more authentic, collaborative, and creative place. When Nolan was working in Washington, he said what drove him crazy was the lack of creativity, not getting to do anything artistic with his hands. The Phoenix is like his ongoing art project that he’s been able to pour himself into, keeping it fresh and challenging with new menu items and collaborations. “I get really excited to give people an experience. We get to craft something and then give it away and see someone’s reaction right there and who doesn’t light up for ice cream. You see those moments and then you see the grandparents come in with their grandchildren and it reminds me of my childhood at Trowbridges.”
To be honest, stories like Nolan’s is why I wanted to write about Knoxville. I knew there were people and lives that were culminating presently to create special corners in this city where others could come to connect and be inspired.
To close, I wanted to share my favorite words from my new friend and ice-cream magic-maker:
“The theme here is if it’s special to me then I think you will like it too. So, this is me sharing the things that make me happy or that are meaningful to me in some way.”
A calling, a contribution, a way to spend your time can be as simple as that. What your story leads to might not be creating the new and improved craft sundae like Nolan, but there’s got to be something you love that could be shared in a special way. It might even turn out to be the next fascinating contribution in our city that only your story could bring!
If you need some inspiration, head over to the Phoenix Pharmacy and experience the creative masterpiece showing up from simply someone else’s story.
Thanks for listening and thank you to Nolan and the others in Knoxville who make our city sprinkled with creativity and life!