Monday, July 7, 2008

Chock full o'Nuts

Upon graduation from Columbia University in the early Twenties, Mr. [William] Black followed the normal routine of job hunting. Unable to find employment that suited him, he went into business for himself. He opened a nut store under a staircase in the basement of a Times Square building.

From this subterranean start the venture grew into a chain of eighteen nut stores under the name Chock Full O' Nuts [sic]. The business thrived until the depression hit. Mr. Black decided nuts were a luxury. From 1931 to 1933 he changed all the stores into quick-order luncheonettes.

The restaurants specialized, as they do today, in nutted cream cheese sandwiches and coffee. Soups and pies were added to round out the menu.

George Auerbach, "Chock Full o' Whatever It Takes," New York Times, April 14, 1956
An impulsive purchase of two cans of coffee in New Jersey has had me thinking about Chock full o'Nuts.¹ Once upon a time, Chock full o'Nuts was a New York chain whose restaurants seemed to be everywhere, with glass fronts and distinctively lettered dark-blue and white signs. I remember eating at Chock full o'Nuts as a kid, on family shopping expeditions and after trips to the orthodontist — "frankfurters" (not "hot dogs"), chocolate milk, and very strange doughnuts. I remember how good mustard and chocolate milk tasted together. I remember how quickly the fun of sitting on a stool faded into the awkwardness of legs dangling in space. I remember that there was no tipping, and I remember wondering what would happen to the money if someone were to leave a tip. I remember that it seemed that everyone working at Chock full o'Nuts was black. I remember a song that my brother and I created, inspired by an item on the menu (and the song "Everybody Loves Saturday Night"):
Navy pea bean soup, navy pea bean soup,
Everybody, everybody, everybody, everybody,
Navy pea bean soup.
The Chock full o'Nuts menu was limited, but I didn't remember how limited until I found this photograph:

[Jackie Robinson and an unidentifed employee. Robinson became vice-president of personnel for Chock full o'Nuts in 1957.]

Lobster salad and coffee, please. And a piece of lemon cream pie. William Black's idea of "food" seems to have been stuck in a time warp, a severely minimalist time warp: No Coke. No Pepsi. No fries. No chips. No wonder the restaurants began disappearing in the 1970s.

Chock full o'Nuts' Chock Cafés still offer a limited menu, including the Chock Classic ("datenut bread with cream cheese") and whole wheat donuts (not doughnuts).

Whole wheat: that's why the doughnuts were so strange.

Related posts
Chock full o'Nuts lunch hour
New York, 1964: Chock full o'Nuts

Related reading and viewing
Company history
Chock full o'Nuts' last days
William Black's philanthropy

Chock full o'Nuts (1970 photograph)
Chock full o'Nuts (1970s photograph)
Chock Full o'Nuts commercial (with Page Morton Black, the boss's wife, and a shortened version of the famous jingle)

You can find more commercials in the timeline at the company website.

¹ The capitalization and spacing are wrong, but that's the company way.

comments: 7

Geo-B said...

Now flash forward forty years and imagine what you might be writing about Starbucks.

j said...

as long as there's datenut bread with cream cheese...

look at the prices. do you think a Starbucks is proportionately equal (current salaries) to their cup o'joe?

(comment originally under wrong post- sorry)

Michael Leddy said...

George, I wonder what kind of world it'll be when we're nostalgic for Starbucks. By then, I suppose our caffeine (and smart drugs) will be delivered to our heads via satellite.

According to two online inflation calculators, a 1957 dime would be worth 74¢ or 76¢ in 2007. I'd say you're right, J — the Starbucks cup of coffee doesn't seem comparable.

Anonymous said...

Be advised that the "original" Chock full o'Nuts coffee shops dating back to the 1920's (they were incorporated in 1932)never sold cream cheese on date nut bread sandwiches. They sold "Cheese with Walnut" sandwiches which consisted of walnuts premixed with neufendel cheese and spread over raisin bread. The nutted cheese was produced delivered by a PA cheese company called Zauzner in 5lb containers. The raisin bread was baked at the Chock bakery in NJ.

Michael Leddy said...

You can see the details of this sandwich in the photo: cheese, walnuts, raisin bread.

How did you discover these details, Anon.? And is Zauzner an older name for the company now called Zausner?

Holymolyma said...

Zauzner is a misspelling. Anon is referring to Hy Zausner who imported Danish cheese to the US. My grandfather worked for Hy for many years and introduced me to Hy when I was about 10. I remember being a "taster" for new foods that Chock Full 'O Nuts was planning to market. As an adult, I was curious about the relationship between Zausner and Black's businesses. Now I know!

Michael Leddy said...

What a great story to be able to tell. Thanks for sharing it here.