Orange diner Watson’s Soda Fountain and Cafe closes after more than 100 years

ORANGE, Calif. (KABC) — Watson’s Soda Fountain and Cafe, a staple of Old Town Orange for over a century, will soon be closing.

Watson’s opened in 1899 as a drugstore, then became a soda fountain where employees served malts, shakes and sundaes in 1915. But from next month the new owner will begin its transition to a Mexican restaurant.

“There is going to be a lot of sadness and resentment because this place has been part of people’s lives for as long as we can remember,” said operations manager Abel Rullier. “Depending on your age, you, your parents, your grandparents, maybe even your great-grandparents, always knew the Watsons were here.”

Rullier said the current owners took over the property almost a decade ago but have always struggled to make a profit. Therefore, he said they made changes to try to make the restaurant more appealing to the current generation.

“We were hoping to elevate this to something more modern, keeping the old school, classic soda vibe, updating the menu,” Rullier said. “We gave them a bar, we wanted to elevate this place but also stay true to the tradition of what this place is and what it’s built on and that’s what we tried to do.”

But Rullier said not all of the changes were popular with the community.

“We understand that the community hasn’t always liked the changes we’ve made to Watson, and they’ve spoken out by not supporting us at times,” Rullier said. “We totally understand that and unfortunately we’ve also made mistakes along the way, but it was always our intention to do justice to this place.”

However, the COVID pandemic and skyrocketing inflation presented the restaurant with such incredible challenges that they could not recover.

“We felt the effects like everyone else. But unfortunately we don’t have deep pockets,” Rullier said. “We’re not a corporation and we don’t have 10, 15, 20, 30 other restaurants that we can rely on for financial support. So ultimately it really crippled us.”

The new owners take over next month. On Instagram, they indicate that Watson’s will become Hector’s on the Circle, a Mexican restaurant.

Longtime Watson client Paul Phanner is upset by the change, but hopes his replacement will still provide a unique experience for families.

“It’s sad…I just see what a great experience it is for a young family or kids to have come here over the years,” Phanner said. “And I wonder what they’ll have that isn’t a prepackaged franchise experience. It’s unique.”

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