On the banks of the Susquehanna River, located halfway between the county seats of Lancaster and York, sits Columbia, Pennsylvania. For centuries an integral hub for transportation, first as a ferry crossing and later as part of the Pennsylvania Railroad, it now is bypassed by traffic speeding along Route 30.
But folks smart enough to get off of the four-lane highway and onto the Lincoln Highway will discover a vibrant corner of the historic downtown at Hinkle’s Pharmacy and Restaurant, serving as the heart of the community for 120 years.
While the business began in the three-story building anchoring the busy intersection, it has expanded from its modest beginnings as a pharmacy with a 10-seat soda fountain. Initially remodeled in the 1950s and most recently in the 1970s, the original soda fountain has been replaced and expanded into a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The booth and counter seating at Hinkle’s has been arranged so the waitresses can reach every seat -- all eighty-five of them -- without ever moving from behind the counter. In addition to being efficient for the servers, this configuration also places customers across from each other for easy conversation, even if you’re not a local.
At one of these counter seats you might just find owner John Hinkle III, eating his lunch while catching up on the Wall Street Journal or greeting customers by name as they come in for a bite to eat or to pick up a prescription.
He’ll be happy to tell you a bit of the history of the pharmacy -- how it was started in 1893 by his great-grandfather and how the lunch counter has become a gathering point for the community, with nary a seat to be found on Sundays after church gets out.
Trying to decide what to order is a challenge, with the menu choices deep and varied. Vegetarian and gluten free choices are available as a nod to more healthy eating, but if you want to get a real taste of local cuisine your best bet is the Shifter sandwich.
The Shifter is about as local as you can get, having been invented in Columbia during its railroad heyday, and not known about outside the city limits.
A tasty sandwich made with ham, cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and sweet pickles, this was the preferred quick meal for the railyard workers running the switch engines -- known as “shifters” in Pennsylvania Railroad terminology. Since it was easier to order a “Shifter” rather than list all the ingredients, the nickname and sandwich live on past the life of the railroad that inspired it.
With the highway diverting most travelers away from Columbia, and mandated mail-order prescriptions taking a toll on the pharmacy side of the business, Hinkle’s has found another way to remain historic yet relevant in this new century -- by offering gifts and hard-to-find products the chain stores don’t carry.
So if you find yourself speeding along the highway, remember you may be getting to your destination faster, but you may also be missing a chance to savor some local flavor at Hinkle’s.
Visit Hinkle's Pharmacy
261 Locust St
Columbia, PA 17512
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