January 23, 2023
When Colleen Wilkie and her partner Paul Dormann opened Shug’s Soda Fountain in May 2016, they envisioned families and friends sipping egg creams on swivel stools in the cheerful, light-filled, nostalgic space. Since then, Shug’s has become a refuge in the bustling Pike Place Market, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Seattle. Families and friends flock to Shug’s to celebrate milestones, enjoy each other’s company, or relax and enjoy house-made syrups, sauces and toppings, Lopez Island Creamery small-batch ice cream, organic coffee, beer, wine, and ice cream cocktails.
“We created a place where people could sit down with friends and family and enjoy delicious and beautiful ice cream,” Wilkie said. “It provides what coffee shops are now and what soda fountains used to be, a place to congregate. We’ve been fortunate to be able to do this for our community. We provide a place for people to go and slow down a little bit before going back into the world.”
From the beginning Wilkie dreamed of a retro look and a memorable experience for customers, so she paid attention to every detail. On her search for vintage ice cream cabinets, she uncovered something even more intriguing — a 1930s soda fountain located across the country in New Hampshire. Wilkie and Dormann immediately booked a flight to the East Coast to take a look. Once they saw the soda fountain in person, they were sold and their concept for the shop evolved with the fountain as the centerpiece. Then they started dreaming up homemade sodas and syrups to provide products and up their game.
With its central Pike Place Market location, tourists and cruise passengers have always been the backbone of Shug’s success, with around 75 percent of business coming from tourism, and business really heating up during the summer months.
“In the beginning, I don’t think we realized how summers were going to go here; Seattle is such a destination in summer,” Wilkie said. “We meet people from all over the world coming to our beautiful city.”
Everything changed in March 2020. On February 28, 2020 it was business as usual as Wilkie handed out ice cream sandwiches in the Girl Scouts of Washington Parade. Two weeks later, Shug’s Soda Fountain shut down with all other nonessential businesses in Washington State to keep people safe from rising COVID-19 cases. For a business so focused on the dine-in experience, this was particularly devastating.
Shug's made a near “instantaneous” shift to selling takeaway sundae kits from the walk-up window. Those sales helped Shug’s survive the hardest months of the pandemic. With the whole downtown core shut down, tourism nonexistent, and many downtown workers working remotely, Shug’s was doing 20 percent of the business it would have normally seen.
It was a challenging year and a half. But the July launch of the 2021 abbreviated cruise season and an influx of tourism after the state reopened, brought Shug’s a welcome boost in sales.
A typical cruise season brings more than 200 ship visits to Seattle, each contributing an estimated $4.2 million to the local economy. While the 2021 cruise season is bringing just 82 ship visits, it is undeniably having a positive impact on businesses like Shug’s.
Wilkie said the atmosphere over the summer felt nearly normal with a bustling market, tourists and cruise passengers exploring downtown, and customers popping into Shug’s to savor a sundae or sip an egg cream.
“We feel the biggest impact when cruise ships are in port and when it is nice out,” she said.
But business is still far from back to normal. Wilkie said that 2021 netted about 50% of their typical business, and their future remains uncertain.
“I want to keep my doors open; that is my biggest hope,” she said. “Although we are taking it one week at a time right now, we are excited to be part of the big Seattle comeback. We remain hopeful that we’ll continue to share Shug’s with Seattle guests from near and far.”
January 23, 2023
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