A Chock Full o’ Nuts luncheonette recently opened
in Manhattan—the surest and best sign that New York has turned the corner. The rest of the country may still be mired in gloom and recession, but here in Gotham we’re going back to the future, which is always the best and safest direction to travel.
You couldn’t pick a better comeback symbol than Chock Full o’ Nuts. For one thing, these lunch counters were the early vanguard of health food. Their meals were cheap, quick, delicious, and nutritious, like their famous Cream Cheese on Date-Nut Bread. In a city full of expensive faux-diners, all claiming to serve old-fashioned comfort food, this wonderful dish hasn’t been seen anywhere on a menu in years. Also, long before the organic-food craze hit, Chock served whole-wheat donuts. Previously, New Yorkers had always been short-changed by half-wheat products, but no one knew the difference. The people at Chock Full o’ Nuts showed the way.
The old chain was also a vital part of the civil rights revolution. When Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson got too old to play baseball, he was hired as the company’s director of personnel. Robinson made sure that equal opportunity prevailed at all levels of the operation, just as he had done when he became the first black to play in the major leagues. This is why so many workers at the luncheonettes were African-Americans. In the early ’60s, the much-larger chain of lunch counters at Woolworth’s became the target of integration protests throughout the South. Here in New York, some people joined picket lines of solidarity outside of local Woolworth stores, even though they were already integrated. Other people simply climbed atop stools at Chock Full o’ Nuts counters to show their support for the cause.
A little-known fact is that employees at Chock’s luncheonettes were union members, represented, oddly enough, by the United Mine Workers of America. Exactly how this came to be is lost somewhere in the annals of organized labor. One story goes that the mine workers’ leader, John L. Lewis—a man of enormous appetites and immense, shaggy eyebrows—got so tired of being called the devil by mine owners that, just to spite them, he went up to New York to organize the workers at the “Heavenly” coffee chain. Whatever the reason, back when Chock Full o’ Nuts diners were sprinkled throughout the city, a visit to their counters represented a twofer: support for civil rights and unions just by ordering a grilled cheese on rye. These days, the city’s thousands of underpaid restaurant employees are as likely to be represented by a union as Wall Street stockbrokers. Since it’s an established economic fact that higher wages help lift all boats, this may be another area in which the new Chock diners lead the way.
Another reason the old Chock Full o’ Nuts places were so popular was their advertising. It wasn’t just the catchy tune, but the backstory, which struck a deep chord with consumers. It was well known that the owner of the chain back then, Bill Black, was so devoted to his wife, Page Morton Black, that he let her sing the coffee’s famous jingle in his radio and TV ads, even though her voice fell several notes south of Patti Page. You heard her croon, “Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy,” and you thought, “Wow, that guy really loves his wife.” The next day, you were right there at the counter, dunking a whole-wheater into a mug of their fine joe.
By the way, the original lyric used the mighty Rockefellers as the universal standard for immense wealth, as in “better coffee Rockefeller’s money can’t buy.” For some reason, the family objected to this, and the name was deleted. You can bet they regret it now. The current generation thinks “Rockefeller” is either the name of a skating rink or a misspelling of a popular hip-hop record label. The lyric has since been updated to “a billionaire’s money,” which is appropriate, given inflation. An even smarter move would be to auction off the naming rights so that a real billionaire who would like to be immortalized in one of the great advertising jingles could step up. The winner of such a contest is a given, and a perfect fit as well: “Better coffee Bloomberg’s money can’t buy.”
Now that New York is turning the corner again, there’s no telling where this is headed, but it’s all good. Another obvious way to keep the momentum going would be to bring back Horn & Hardart automats. The last of these, on the corner of Third Avenue and 42nd Street, closed back in 1991. This means that an entire generation has come to maturity without experiencing the joy of wandering among an array of glass- and chrome-encased delicacies where, for the right number of quarters dropped in a slot, windows wondrously popped open, revealing a plate of macaroni and cheese, Boston baked beans, or pumpkin pie.
Having their food displayed in the ultimate transparency was another reason why these cafeterias defined dining democracy. Also, no one forced you to say “Caffe Tall” when what you really wanted was a small cup of coffee. Nor were you made to hand over your money first and then stand around waiting for someone to pull you a cup of java as if it were as labor-intensive as tuning a carburetor. No, you picked up a mug—not cardboard, but real china, heavy enough to break a toe if dropped—and placed it under a marvelous lion’s-head-shaped spout. You dropped in some nickels (OK, it would now be many quarters), pulled a metal crank from left to right, and coffee or cocoa would rush out as if from a Roman fountain.
This is the perfect formula to get our juices going again and rekindle New York’s economic engines as we pull away from a long, bleak downturn. Speaking of perfect formulas, anyone for an Orange Julius?