Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
August 29, 1990
The final, faded days of Chock
Report on the decline of Chock Full 'o Nuts

NEW YORK - It is lunch hour in Manhattan, not that you would notice from the scant few diners perched on the cracked vinyl stools in the Chock Full o' Nuts restaurant. A sign in the window reassures doubters: "Yes, We're Open."

But not for long.

At the end of next month, the lunch counter at Broadway and 35th Street in Manhattan's Herald Square will close forever, leaving but one Chock Full o' Nuts restaurant in a city where the chain once was an institution.

"They said the lease is up and they're not going to renew it," said Katie Jamison, the restaurant's manager. She has worked for 15 years for the chain she simply calls Chock. "It's sad, but what can you do, right?"

Chock Full o' Nuts, which began as a Times Square nut stand in 1922, reached its peak in the 1960s, when the chain boasted about 80 restaurants, some as far south as Philadelphia.

Chock's hallmark was "heavenly" coffee - the company began retailing the blend in 1953 - and its inexpensive, prepared food that was untouched by hands. All of the food was prepared in a commissary in Secaucus, N.J., where the cooks used tongs to assemble sandwiches.

"This was the original fast food, in a way," said Susan Siegle, a financial officer for a dress manufacturer who stopped by the other day to order a nutty cheese sandwich - cream cheese and chopped nuts on dark raisin bread wrapped in plain, waxed paper. A waitress in a blue uniform instantly filled the order by pulling out a sandwich from under the counter.

Chock Full o' Nuts restaurants, where for a long time the waitresses were not allowed to take tips, are dying unceremoniously. The lease on the remaining restaurant, at 41st Street and Madison Avenue, will expire in the next two years. There are no plans to renew it.

It will be a pitiful end to a business that reflected the quirkiness of its fastidious founder, William Black, a philanthropist who lied so much about his origins that even he was unsure of his age when he died in 1983. The obituaries said he was 80.

"The restaurants were really going downhill," said one of his three daughters, Barbara Jane Kennedy, 54, who lives in Manhattan. "I passed a few of them several years ago, and they were so dirty. My father was almost nutty about cleanliness."

"It is sad, but it's kind of inevitable," said Black's eldest daughter, Willy Werby, 58, of Hillsborough, Calif. "There was no one to take over."

The demise of the coffee shops is the result of a typical corporate evolution, in which the modern entity no longer bears any resemblance to the original business. There still is a Chock Full o' Nuts Inc. - it is a publicly traded coffee company that had more than $250 million in sales last year. But it discarded the restaurants after Black died.

Black said he was born in Brooklyn, but he actually emigrated from Russia when he was 4 years old, according to his daughters. Kennedy believes that her father's onetime poverty was responsible for his personality. "I think he developed kind of a horror of messiness."

Black went to Columbia University and graduated in engineering. Unable to find work in that profession, he found opportunity instead in the long lines that formed outside a discount theater-ticket outlet in Times Square. He set up a nut stand. Sales exploded. Within a decade, he owned 18 Chock Full o' Nuts restaurants.

During the Depression, nuts became very expensive, so Black converted the stands into lunch counters that specialized in cheap, quick meals. The menus were short and standardized.

To maintain a quick turnover of customers - the restaurants depended on high volume - Black banned cigarette machines because he did not want customers taking up a stool just to smoke. "It wasn't the kind of place you'd like to hang around for a half-hour," said Kennedy.

She added that the company was "rigidly organized - almost militarily." Black tolerated no dissent. "If you had any gumption, it was difficult to work for him," Werby said.

But Black also had an impulsive streak. He slept till noon and dropped in unannounced to inspect restaurants at midnight. Werby recalled that he once read in the newspaper that the Bronx Zoo was exhibiting a platypus. "He couldn't believe such a thing existed, and he dropped everything, and we went to the Bronx."

He was also generous. He founded the Parkinson's Disease Foundation in 1957 after a company officer and lifelong friend contracted the disease. He donated millions to medical research and universities. He believed in giving while he was still alive. "I wanted to see where the money went," he said.

Eventually the retail coffee business overtook the restaurants in sales. A younger generation that preferred hamburgers and pizza had little desire to patronize lunch counters where waitresses who wore hairnets served nutty cheese sandwiches, frankfurters and pea soup.

"He just didn't adapt," said Werby. "He had this idea that worked well back in the '30s, but in the restaurant business you have to change."

As the leases expired on the restaurants, the company shut them down, one by one.

After Black died, no one in his family had any connection with the business. In fact, his failure to include Kennedy, Werby or his third daughter, Melinda Black, of New York, in a will that put everything into a trust for his third wife set off a lawsuit and made the family situation pretty messy.

His physician, Leon Pordy, took over as chairman of the company.

Chock Full o' Nuts Inc. sold its remaining 17 restaurants to Riese Bros. Inc., a management firm that operates 320 franchise restaurants in the New York area, ranging from Roy Rogers to Houlihan's.

"It was more of a real estate deal than a restaurant deal," said Joseph A. Breslin, executive vice president of the coffee company.

Riese had little interest in operating Chock Full o' Nuts restaurants, said Vincent M. McCann, the company's chief operating officer.

"I think there's a curve to any business, and the real secret to success is maintaining the upside of that curve as long as you can," said McCann. Chock Full o' Nuts was "well past that point."

The new owners made an attempt at modernizing the menu. They added food such as stuffed potatoes, hamburgers and bagels. But sales continued to slip, and the coffee shops started to resemble seedy refuges for down-and-outers. Some even say the coffee no longer tasted the same.

Riese has converted most of the Chock Full o' Nuts into other fast-food restaurants. But several leases permitted only Chock Full o' Nuts. And so Riese was stuck operating a handful of the old restaurants, waiting for the leases to expire.

After next month, Riese will have only one remaining Chock Full o' Nuts to operate. Its lease runs out in 1992. "It was a pretty long run," said McCann. home page   
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