Watson’s, the iconic orange soda fountain that has been serving malts and burgers for more than a century, will close its doors and end a historic chapter for the restaurant that has served as a landmark at Orange Plaza for generations.
Citing rising rental and business costs, owner Billy Skeffington said the final day for Watson’s Soda Fountain and Cafe at its Chapman Avenue location will likely be in the next few weeks. Another restaurant, Hectors on the Circle, is set to take over the premises next month, according to the owner and social media.
But the Watson brand will not die out if Skeffington has anything to do with it, he said. Already scouting for new locations in the city’s old town, he enlists Orange’s real estate agent, Al Ricci, to help him find a place.
So far there are three potential candidates, said Ricci, but did not want to give any details about the specific locations. Ricci is looking for a place for “a simpler hamburger and milkshakes from the ’50s,” he said.
Opened as a drug store in 1899, Watson’s became the soda fountain in 1915, which it still is today. It’s been a Hollywood set, starring in films like the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do!, and over the decades has attracted regulars like George W. Bush, who once stopped by for a malt.
And it has retained a nostalgic ambience over the years. When Skeffington bought the home from longtime owner Scott Parker in 2015, he carefully remodeled it with a mix of old and new.
The more modern, upscale version of the diner vibe that Skeffington created led to new food and drink options. He obtained an expanded spirits license to offer specialty cocktails and dessert drinks.
But even with a snazzy new menu and updated interior, the store couldn’t seem to keep up with the rising costs of running the place.
When Parker sold Watson’s to Skeffington, he was already struggling to pay the $14,000 monthly rent on top of the company’s other expenses, Parker said.
“When I left I was so happy to get out of there because I just couldn’t. And I was there for 50 years.”
Parker said he was pleased with the renovations Skeffington undertook, which showcased some historical memorabilia and preserved the space’s character. While others fretted over the diner’s rehab, Parker said the changes are what he would have liked to have done if he could.
“He’s been criticized for changing things, but everything changes,” Parker said.
Orange’s Jeff Young recalls years ago seeing the patio in front of the soda fountain full of customers as he walked down Chapman Avenue, with “motorcycles and cars parked there on the curb.”
But lately, as the 72-year-old and his wife Debbie stroll in to get muffins, it seems like “the traffic at their store isn’t what it used to be,” he said on Friday in reference onto the restaurant from a bench in the roundabout’s Plaza Park.
“It’s never full.”
But Watson’s is still an “institution” in orange, stressed Debbie Young. The couple have lived in the city since the 1970s and they recall sharing breakfast and dinner there over the years. The baked goods have been the Youngs’ favorite lately.
Found in the basement of Watson’s Drug & Soda Fountain: Hidden Pharmacy Records from 1888 and more
As new shops come and go in Old Towne Orange, the appetite for some of the typical shops that once dotted the circle seems to have changed over time, Debbie Young said, noting there were fewer small shops and antique shops .
Parker attributes the dwindling number of small shops to rising rental costs for businesses in the area. As new restaurants come in and competition for space increases, small businesses may lose out on price, he said.
Or maybe it’s just like anything else that exists in a time and place that eventually moves on, Jeff Young mused, recalling shops like Coco’s Bakery or Reuben’s or “a lot of different restaurants that just aren’t here anymore.” .
“Things change and people’s tastes change with different generations and so on,” he said. “And the stuff that was popular back then isn’t that popular now. So those places fall away and new things come.”
But Orange Councilwoman Arianna Barrios, who represents the borough to which Old Towne Orange belongs, believes more needs to be done to preserve the history and style of this particular borough, which many businesses covet as one view location.
“We are the protectors of such things,” she said, calling the historic center “one of the jewels in the United States in terms of public places.”
“We have the right to protect that. We have a mandate to protect that,” she added. “In this way we can make demands on the companies that come into this area. It’s historical. There is a certain character that we have to keep.”
Barrios said she would also like to see the city find ways to help owners of historic businesses like Watson’s keep their history alive.
Parker agreed, saying he hopes city leaders find a solution soon to preserve businesses that preserve Old Towne’s character, “because after a while,” he said, “it gets destroyed.”
https://www.ocregister.com/2022/07/23/watsons-in-old-towne-orange-will-close-doors-after-more-than-a-century/ Watson’s in Old Towne Orange will close its doors after more than a century – Orange County Register