Los Banos Fountain and Gifts, the successor to Los Banos Drugs, is closing June 30.
Duane “Pudge” Griffin (the business owner), along with the building’s owner (the Wolfsen family), tried to make it a success. So did the community, with many local residents patronizing the old-time soda fountain this past year.
But as the business owner and the landlord looked into the future, there were just too many hurdles to overcome to continue the business for the long term. The primary hurdle is the need to make significant required upgrades to a building, which was constructed more than three-quarters of a century ago.
“We needed to upgrade the facility substantially, including replacing the water and sewer lines under the building’s slab,” said Taylor Wolfsen, representing the Wolfsen family. “Once we did that there would be other upgrades that would have to be made. It will take a minimum of $150,000 to make that happen.
“My family, which has ties to the drug store and fountain that go back to my grandfather,” Wolfsen said, “would have been willing to do this, but we needed mutual help from the business owner. Unfortunately, the business running as it is didn’t warrant those types of repairs and everyone would have a hard time getting a return on their investment.
“An idea was floated,” Wolfsen added, “that the business owner could attempt to secure financing to update and relaunch the business as well as come up with a long-term business plan. That didn’t happen.”
Griffin, the business owner, is a pharmacist by trade. When he bought the drug store and fountain several years ago, he had hoped to continue the pharmacy as his primary business.
But he didn’t get the reimbursements he expected from insurance companies, including, as he told this reporter last June, $50,000 to $100,000 in unpaid promised reimbursements. As a result, he had to sell the pharmacy inventory and hope that the fountain and gifts business could sustain itself, signing a one-year lease with Wolfsen.
But Los Banos Fountain and Gifts didn’t create enough profit to make the kind of investments the business and building needed for the long term.
Los Banos Fountain and Gifts has a sign at the front door announcing business closing sale, with everything in the store, except for items at the soda fountain counter, at 35 percent off.
What happens after June 30 is anybody’s guess. “I’m keeping all options open,” Wolfsen said. “My first option would be someone willing to invest in a 1950s style diner, where we could keep an upgraded counter and fountain and add booths.
“However,” he added, “I haven’t had anyone knocking down my door to say they’re interested in such a venture. So I have to keep all other options open, which may include other types of restaurants. It could be that if that happens, it would be the end of the soda fountain, as much as I would like it to continue.”
Wolfsen said that the Los Banos Downtown Association’s current revitalization plans and upscaling of Los Banos’ downtown gives him hope for a revitalization of the corner property on Sixth and J Streets. “The renovated Crest Theater on I Street, for example, which will become a sports bar and grill called Jams@209, should open sometime this fall.
“Other new businesses are making investments along I Street, including Biggin’s Texas BBQ,” Wolfsen said. “I think that could continue down Sixth Street to J Street. I can see the day when our downtown area looks like Turlock’s.
“I’ve been impressed with the help the City of Los Banos has given,” Wolfsen said, “including from Community and Economic Director Stacy Elms and City Manager Josh Pinheiro. They have spent many hours to find solutions and suggest ideas.”
Wolfsen added anyone who knows of individuals who would like to make a business investment in the Sixth-and-J-Street building should contact him. “I will pursue all leads.
“I’m optimistic the downtown area will grow and thrive,” he added. “We just need more business owners and investors coming forward.”
Note: This reporter attempted to contact Duane Griffin for his perspective on the fountain closing but was unable to do so.