'It's been humbling': Brent's Drugs owner preserves a Jackson, Mississippi, legacy

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen

Brent's Drugs in Jackson, Mississippi, was a survivor. Founded in 1946, the Fondren mainstay once was not that unique. Drugstores with soda fountains, where you could get a burger or a shake while waiting for a prescription, were part of American life. Then, as national chains grew, one by one the soda fountains vanished from the pharmacies.

Then, in 2009, Brent's Drugs was bought by CVS and the pharmacy was moved down the street. It looked like the soda fountain's days were numbered.

The continued success of the iconic Brent's Drugs in Jackson, Miss., is a reflection of the strong community that supports the diner.

Brad Reeves, 43, a lawyer who grew up in Jackson, did not dream of running a soda fountain. But he did not want Brent's to close. When he read in the Clarion-Ledger that Brent's was in peril, he decided to buy it and run the place as a full restaurant.

"We jokingly say that we're a soda fountain that is drug-free," Reeves said.

Brad Reeves, president of Brent's Drugs, is thrilled with the support the community is giving the iconic Jackson, Miss., diner, he explained Tuesday, March 22, 2022. Brent's opened as a pharmacy with a soda fountain in 1946. With the pharmacy now closed, the diner and soda fountain are going strong. Grandparents, parents and their children continue to keep the tradition of Brent's going.

Since taking over Brent's Drugs, Reeves has immersed himself in soda fountain history. That attention to detail is why Brent's feels like a part of the past instead of a retro re-recreation.

Pharmacists used to compound drugs. The soda fountains and gift shops were a way to occupy and make a little extra money from customers as they waited for their medicines to be mixed.

"Soda foundations really were a marketing ploy, for lack of a better term," Reeves said.

The syrups used by the soda jerks for drinks could also sweeten bitter medicine for children.

The soda fountain in Brent's Drugs in the Fondren District of Jackson, Miss., is about as shiny on Tuesday, March 22, 2022, as when the diner opened in 1946.

Make it better, but it better not be different

Brent's opened just after World War II in 1946, the same year as several other long-running Fondren businesses, like Walker's Drive-In. Lingering wartime deprivations meant that at first, Brent's had plywood instead of glass in its windows.

When he bought Brent's, Reeves wondered if he could make it work without the attached pharmacy.

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"All of sudden, you're going to lose that walk-in traffic," he said. "That was the risk we took."

As he turned Brent's into a stand-alone restaurant, Reeves made sure every item could have been in the place when it opened in 1946. There is no jukebox because diners in the 1940s did not have them. The menu includes a cherry phosphate because that now nearly extinct drink was a soda fountain staple.

The Blades children, from left, David, 4, Oliver, 9, and Caroline, 7, of Montgomery, Ala., chat while eating lunch at the counter at Brent's Drugs in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, March 24, 2022. Their grandmother Gayla Stone of Ridgeland took their mother Emily Stone Blades to Brent's when she was a child. The pair sit in a nearby booth.

"The best asset I had was my brother, who worked for a theater in Austin in set and prop design," Reeves said.

The brothers looked at typewritten menus, tracked down vintage fixtures and even got ahold of an old employee manual with recipes for ice cream treats.

He had to be careful about any additions. Upgrading the meat for the burgers, from frozen pucks to fresh patties from Evans Meats, was popular. Putting a kale salad on the menu was not.

As the Blades siblings, from left, Caroline, 7, Oliver, 9, and David, 4, of Montgomery, Ala., eat lunch at the counter at Brent's Drugs in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, March 24, 2022, their mother Emily Stone Blades shares a booth, background right, with their grandmother Gayla Stone of Ridgeland, Miss. "We didn't do McDonald's. We did Brent's," Stone said.

"A lot of older ladies aren't used to eating kale," he said. "You learn that you have to admit when you make mistakes."

When people come to Brent's, he learned, they want the basics. He can make it better, but he better not make it different.

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One major addition was The Apothecary, a hidden cocktail lounge that opened in 2013 in a former storage room. The owners of Cure, the James Beard Award-winning cocktail bar in New Orleans, consulted on The Apothecary.

Even when Reeves built something completely new, he looked to the past. The bar back is an antique cabinet from a pharmacy in Massachusetts. The lights fixtures at The Apothecary are actually pharmacy lights, which were used for counting pills.

Reeves remains a full-time lawyer, but he is also a restaurant owner. That means when Brent's is short a waiter or a dishwasher, he sometimes has to jump in and help.

"It's been humbling," he said.

The iconic Brent's Drugs diner, shown Thursday, March 24, 2022, in the Fondren District of Jackson, Miss., has been serving generations of families since its 1946 opening.

And a restaurant is not a business that makes many people rich.

"I'm not going to retire any earlier owning Brent's," he said.

Reeves, though, grew up with Brent's Drugs. He feels a duty to take care of it, for everyone else who loves the place.

"It's more like I'm a curator of a museum," he said.

Brent's Drugs: 655 Duling Ave., Jackson, (601) 366-3427

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com.