The secret recipe of Rhodes Drug Store’s vanilla extract creates appeal from one generation to the next.
By Debbie Eisele
Rhodes Drug Store was a staple along Main Street for decades. Originally, this community pharmacy was owned by Dusty Rhodes, which opened in the 1930s. The building, and its offerings, may have changed over the decades, but one item still remains—Rhodes Drugstore Vanilla.
In the mid 1960s, Russell Herring purchased Rhodes Drug Store and that constituted the passing of an era. But a tradition that began at the drugstore around 1938 was preserved; that of making and selling the vanilla compound so desired by locals for baking delicious sweets. In 1972, Duane Thompson began working at Rhodes as an employee for Herring. He was one of the individuals tasked with making the now-famous vanilla. Although Thompson left in 1974 to open a business in Winchester, he returned in 1976 when he purchased the drugstore from Herring.
Thompson grew up in Front Royal and knew at an early age he wanted to be a scientist. “In eighth grade, I picked my profession. Some adults were asking what type of scientist I wanted to be. I didn’t know until we had Career Day, that’s when I knew I wanted to be a pharmacist,” recalled Thompson. “No one in my family was one. But I went to the Medical College of Virginia. When I graduated in 1971 it had become Virginia Commonwealth University.
“In school we learned all about compounding. Independent community pharmacies had an edge back then because of compounding. It takes time weighing ingredients and putting them in the right order,” explained Thompson. “This is how the independent community pharmacies found their niche. Doctors even created their own ‘recipes.’” The drugstore’s vanilla became their important niche.
Even today, 12 years after the doors of the drug store have closed, the extract remains available for purchase. The compound is created with a secret recipe belonging to Dusty Rhodes’ mother. Only a handful of select individuals know the actual ingredients and process involved in making this wonderful delight.
Thompson shared how Dusty began marketing the vanilla. “I’m not sure the exact year that he began selling vanilla,” said Thompson. “We sold it just around Christmas time for people to give as gifts to their families and neighbors.”
In its infancy, the vanilla was inexpensive. The eight-ounce bottle sold for just 75 cents. “Like everything else over the years, the price has gone up,” said Thompson. Today, the price for eight ounces is $7. The packaging, like the ingredients, has also remained the same, with one exception. The original bottles of vanilla were sold in clear bottles (yes, the same as those used for cough syrup and other liquid medicines). When the pharmaceutical industry changed to tinted bottles, the vanilla bottle reflected the new trend. The label on the vanilla bottle today looks almost identical to the ones from decades ago. “Why mess with a good thing?” Thompson said.
Once Thompson purchased Rhodes, Fannie Lightner, a longtime employee who had worked with all three owners, suggested a slight change. “Fannie said to me ‘Why don’t we put it (the vanilla) out all year, and not just for Christmas?’ I thought that was a good idea,” Thompson shared with a smile. “Fannie was loved by all the customers. Some would wait for her, even if other clerks were available. She was truly customer oriented,” said Thompson. “She lived off Main Street and would come in when it snowed, even on her day off, because she could get there when others could not.” Fannie was also responsible for suggesting placing the bottles on the counter at the drugstore, which offered convenience and more spontaneous purchases. “I agreed to that because it was Fannie’s recommendation. She was special,” he said.
Thompson shared the history of this oh-so-sweet delight. “When it (the sales) was really rolling, from October through December, we went through about 80 gallons,” detailed Thompson. “People liked it and kept buying it. During the Christmas season it really took off. In 2005 when I closed the store, I had customers come in wanting to buy ALL the vanilla. But, I told them I would keep my hand in it,” explained Thompson.
And that he does. He still produces about 30 gallons a year, even though he has retired. Most of that is sold during the holiday season. “I get busy preparing for the holidays around June. That way I don’t have to worry about producing too much at one time. It takes about a week to process the vanilla and yields about a gallon at a time,” said Thompson. “I don’t want to expand or mass market. I’m retired and want to travel. My bucket list is to sleep in all 50 states.” Jokingly, he was asked if he found any vanilla like his during his travels. He simply said, “No, but I haven’t been looking.”
The process, as well as the recipe, has remained intact and guarded over the generations. Thompson would not divulge any information other than he has not modified it in any way. He said, “Why mess with something that’s right?” The label lists only five ingredients, but the amount of each is unknown, as a special method is utilized when combining ingredients to create the extract.
So what is the next chapter for the notable vanilla? It will remain as is, until the day Thompson decides to retire. “Two drugstores have already asked me for the recipe, but I have not shared it yet,” said Thompson. Eventually, when he decides to pass along the recipe and legacy, the community will still be able to purchase the extract so the next generation will continue to enjoy and carry on this amazing tradition.
Most customers are local, but there have been times that a little “fame” has positively impacted vanilla sales. Once, Thompson was asked to come back to the store after he had retired from pharmacy work, because someone had left a business card for him. The card happened to be from a reporter from the The Washington Post, who then ran a story on the extract. This led to some interesting sales of Rhodes vanilla.
Thompson shared some of his favorite stories. “I got a call from a customer from Seattle, WA. She said ‘I picked up some of your vanilla and my friend took it all. Can you please send me 6 more?’ I of course said yes. A week later she called asking for more. She even mailed me the check with a box of chocolates from Seattle.” He said, “After the story ran in The Washington Post, I received a lot of calls about the vanilla. After a few weeks, the calls died back. A few weeks later, I got calls from Missouri. Same thing happened. The next place I got calls from was from California.”
He shared his tale of THE call. “I got a call from a woman who read about our vanilla and asked for six bottles and wanted to know if I could mail them to her. I agreed and then asked her name. She said ‘Victoria Yeager.’ I said like the test pilot? She told me yes that Chuck was her husband,” said a grinning Thompson.
Places To Buy Rhodes Vanilla
Price: $7 for an 8-oz. bottle