When Brad Reeves purchased Brent’s Drug Store in 2009, he bought it all – shakes, burgers, gifts, hair spray, band aids and more.
What he also bought was the good will of the then 63 year-strong customer base, a group who valued tradition. “Don’t you dare take away my egg and olive sandwich,” he still hears them say.
Five years later, Reeves is about to open the doors on a months-in-the-making renovation, one that has customers wondering, “will this be the Brent’s I know and love?”
When Brent’s was on the verge of closing in 2009, selling off its prescription database to the then-new CVS on Meadowbrook Road, Reeves rescued the Jackson gem. “I mean, sure, there were things we wanted to do when I first bought it, but we were limited,” he says from the store’s former storage room, now The Apothecary, a speakeasy pre-prohibition cocktail bar opened last year. “When I came in, there were less than 40 seats and it’s just kind of grown.”
Challenged with paying the bills and just trying to keep up, Reeves added more booths from a general store in Whynot, Miss. while fire inspectors made him move his grilling operations from behind the soda fountain to the former pharmacy space. “We never could keep up,” he says of the too-small kitchen, long wait times and customer frustrations. “We’ve been lucky to have the support we did.”
Yet, that spark, that magic was still there for so many who continued to patronize Jackson’s only soda fountain. Jonathan Shull was one of those who believed Brent’s could be what it once was again. “Brent’s was a special place,” says Shull, a designer and a partner in The Apothecary. “I remember getting a tooth pulled or being in a play at First Presbyterian Day School – and what did I get? It was always a milkshake at Brent’s. It was a special place to go.”
That’s the same thought former suburbanites, now Jacksonians and Shull friends, Nathan and Amanda Wells had. Nathan says, “Brent’s is a part of Jackson, a part of the fabric of Fondren.”
Regroup, Remodel and Relaunch
Reeves, an attorney, never set out to be a restaurateur. Neither did Shull or the Wells. But the four now call themselves business partners, a deeper bench, to put it in baseball terms. With front-of-house manager John Swanson, head bartender Robert Arender and new chef Karl Gorline, the team hopes their swinging for the fence earns them a homerun with the reopening of Brent’s this week.
What’s new? Everything – and nothing at the same time. Reeves says Brent’s, named one of America’s best diners by Travel + Leisure Magazine, will put more emphasis on service, calling it “one of our challenges.” “We’ve never bragged on that,” he says, adding they are excited about the staff they have assembled. “I wanted to create the same level of service we provide in The Apothecary,” Shull adds, “and it’s all about the right players. That’s one thing I’m obsessed with.”
The addition of a true chef to the Brent’s team is one of those things that “just happened.” Shull says, “Karl has always been on my radar.” Gorline brought the idea for a modern diner to the table and the Brent’s partners agreed they had the right vehicle. “All of us,” Shull says, “have the same vision. We don’t want to change Brent’s for what Brent’s is, but we want to improve upon the experience – the interiors, the food, the service…everything – to make it the best possible place.”
Regulars will note the tried and true egg and olive sandwich (phew!), tuna salad, burgers, french fries, shakes, malts and other ice cream treats. What may not be as easily noticed is what’s really happening behind the scenes. No more frozen food service patties: Brent’s will specially grind – in house – local Mississippi-raised beef. Fries will be hand cut, buns will be made fresh daily, syrups – already being used in The Apothecary – are crafted behind the counter and ice cream will be churned here, all from a nearly three times larger, brand new kitchen. Shull says, “Everything we have done is keeping in perspective what has made Brent’s special.”
Sodas will be crafted from a new, custom fountain machine. Reeves tells of a lady who came in two years ago and had a book, Let’s Sell Ice Cream, used in 50’s for soda fountain training. “It was neat for us to see the different treats being made – everything fresh, in-house, made from scratch,” he says. “That’s genuine.” A farmhouse seasonal coffee from Counter Culture will be served and local beers are on tap, from Lucky Town to Southern Prohibition.
The décor and design is noticeably different. Forties era diners were more streamlined with simple, gentle curves, taking on a more art deco nature. So is the goal for a new Brent’s, to be as authentic as possible to the diner opened in 1946. But there’s one detail Reeves says they won’t try to recreate. Glass was still being rationed in the 40’s and Brent’s opened with plywood on the front, a detail they found in their research for the remodel.
The length of the soda fountain has almost doubled (with 22 stools now) and a “breakfast counter” with eight stools has been added in the front window. Both feature access to electrical plugs for phone charging and “camping out” to work or relax. The original Brent’s palette, boomerang turquoise, white and wood, is the clean, period look the owners went for – and includes a brand new curved deco-style feature above the kitchen.
Just below that, a chef’s table, a bar that will seat five, will give diners the chance to talk with Chef Gorline. “Part of the concept of the original soda fountain was that you could talk to the cooks,” Reeves says. “The chef’s table gives us that experience we had lost and that we’re happy to bring back.”
Brunch will be a weekend fixture with mimosas and bloody marys, made from a house mix containing bartender Arender’s well-known tomatoes. The menu will consist of classic breakfast options but don’t rule out more inventive dishes like Tex-Mex and breakfast sandwiches. And then there are donuts, made by Mark Scurlock (yes, that Scurlock). And it’s worth noting, breakfast will be available anytime. If you crave bacon and eggs at 3pm, Brent’s can accommodate. Reeves believes breakfast could be their bread and butter.
Lunch will include more seasonal salads and sandwiches, something Reeves says diners have asked for over the years. Want a burger? You’ll have options, like the aforementioned fresh ground beef, lamb, Gulf shrimp or of the veggie variety. And while Brent’s has never had a blue plate, Gorline will take a creative approach to the classic “meat and two.” A counter up front includes a case that will be filled with quick, to-go favorites like sandwiches and salads.
Dinner service is still to come, sharing a traditional and not so traditional menu between Brent’s and The Apothecary, open late, with special bar snacks being envisioned by the whole management team.
It’s that team who is standing at the window as a new day for Brent’s approaches. Amanda says all of these changes are to make sure Brent’s can be here and not go away. Nathan says they’ve put so much effort into honoring history, but, as the restaurant reopens, it is a better Brent’s. Reeves feels like it’s a brand new game for the once soda fountain now full-service restaurant. And Shull tells of a recent visitor, summing up the emotions of everyone who has been so invested in reviving a Jackson classic: “A lady who came by the other day – she must have been in her early 90’s – wanted to celebrate her 66th anniversary. And she was sad we were closed, but she wasn’t upset. So was so excited to see we weren’t changing but making it better. Man, it’s great to see people’s excitement about Brent’s again.”
Photos of the remodeled Brents: