How New York did coffee in the 1950s and 1960s

If you’re craving coffee in the contemporary city, you’ve got options: your local Starbucks, a mini-chain like Birch or Gregorys, even a corner no-frills bagel cart.

But in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—before ordering coffee meant navigating a dizzying array of blends and milk options—New Yorkers sipped a simple cup of joe at one humble coffee house: Chock Full o’Nuts.

By the 1960s, about 30 Chock Full o’Nuts restaurants dotted the city. They were so ubiquitous, I wonder if any patrons questioned the name and what nuts had to do with it.

Turns out the chain actually began as a shelled nut shop in 1926.

That’s when a Russian immigrant named William Black opened his first nut store in Times Square, according to Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

By 1932, Black’s original store under a staircase at Broadway and 43rd Street expanded, and he eventually owned 18 nut shops.

But with the Depression still raging, Black “converted his nut shops into inexpensive cafes where a nickel would buy a cup of quality coffee and a ‘nutted cheese’ sandwich—cream cheese with chopped walnuts on lightly toasted whole wheat raisin bread,” states Savoring Gotham.

The famously delicious cream cheese sandwich would eventually be made with date bread, and the menu expanded to donuts, soup, and pie.

When Chock Full o’Nuts reigned as the number one coffee shop in New York City in 1955, the price of a cup came in at just 15 cents.

Customers appreciated the low price, no-tipping policy, and also the cleanliness. Employees prepared the food using tongs, not their hands.

By then, the chain had introduced their own brand of coffee in supermarkets. The catchy TV jingle about the “heavenly coffee” is forever burned into the brains of every native New Yorker born before 1980.

So what happened, and how did Chock Full o’Nuts fall?

After Black died in 1983, the company didn’t adapt to changing consumer tastes, according to a 1990 Washington Post article. In 1988, the 18 remaining Chock Full o’Nuts restaurants were sold to the management chain Riese Brothers.

The last Chock Full o’Nuts hung on in the 1990s at Madison Avenue and 41st Street. In 2010, the name was revived at a new coffee house on 23rd Street, but it closed two years later.

Chock Full o’Nuts ground coffee can still be purchased in stores, its yellow, green, and black coffee can marked by an image of the New York skyline—a reminder of the restaurant’s place in Gotham’s culinary history.

[Top photo: Chock Full o’Nuts website; second photo: MCNY, 1932, 35.165.49; third photo: Chock Full o’Nuts print by Ken Keeley; fourth photo: Chock Full O’Nuts on Cedar Street, New York Times; fifth photo: Chock Full o’Nuts on Canal Street, MCNY, 1980, 2013.3.2.864]

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22 Responses to “How New York did coffee in the 1950s and 1960s”

  1. boxwoodbooks Says:

    Schraftts: My best friend’s mother had a charge account there. The friend would treat her pals at the 79th Street Schrafft after school. My favorite was tuna salad on toasted cheese bread. There were mostly Irish waitresses and yes, there was a primarily Helen Hokinson clientele. And as for their vanilla ice cream with HOT chocolate sauce….

    Catherine Nicholls Ashbrook, Winsford Somerset TA24 7HN 01643 851430

    >

  2. Adam Weiner Says:

    For about a year or so starting in 1994 there was a Chock Full o’ Nuts (formatted more like a Starbucks than its namesake predecessors) on Madison b/w 48th & 49th. Oddly it’s not mentioned in articles/blog posts re: CFoN, including the significant publicity and histories that were generated in 2010 when the W. 23rd St. CFoN cafe opened. https://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/19/nyregion/new-yorkers-co-425389.html

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’d never heard of this one…guess they couldn’t remake the magic. I wonder if someone will try for a third time to bring Chock back.

  3. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    When the jingle was first sung on TV, “better coffee Rockefeller’s money” they were immediately sued and changed the words to “a millionaires money.” I recall adults laughing around town.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      They must have been sued quickly; I never heard that version!

      • Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

        Perhaps it was a verbal warning; looking through the Web since you reminded me of the incident I haven’t found any mention.Maybe Rockefeller hinted what he was gonna do and they reacted fast.

      • Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

        Found that item: However, the company had to alter the lyrics from “Rockefeller’s money” to “a millionaire’s money” after being sued by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who owned coffee interests in Latin America.[11] Mid-2000s versions of the jingle replace “millionaire” with “billionaire”. It’s in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chock_full_o%27Nuts I was thinking of John but it was Nelson, a lot more recent, and as rich as you can be!

    • VirginiaB Says:

      I remember the Rockefeller version vividly, and the controversy. I was very small and that was the first time I ever heard of the Rockefellers.

  4. keenanpatrick424 Says:

    Loved that date nut bread. Schrafft’s was were your parents took you for lunch in the city as a kid. As a teenager Chock Full O’Nuts was were you went if you had a couple of bucks. If you only had a couple of quarters you went to the Automat. No MacDonald’s Burger Kings in the city back then. They were only in the burbs.

  5. Ann Haddad Says:

    When I was a child, no shopping expedition to Macy’s or B. Altman with my mom was complete without a lunch stop at Chock Full O’Nuts. And I still drink the coffee!! One of the ways you can tell I’m a real New Yorker!

  6. Sally F Says:

    Love this entry! Chock full o’ Nuts on 116th St. was my hangout in the 1970s!

  7. Carolyn Lalli Says:

    Wonderful article! Brings back so many memories. In the 70’s, I worked for an international company in the MGM building (55th & 6th). There was a coffee shop on the ground floor that would send a cart 2x daily, to each floor for the convenience of working staff. Options were limited to cup size and black or with milk. A real treat, though, was to stop at the Chock Full O’ Nuts on the corner of 57th and 6th. They also sold the most delicious donuts. Anyone remember when the coffee came in a tin with a key on the bottom of the can?

  8. jane oberg Says:

    agree with all above. that is the nyc i grew up in and loved–schrafts, automat, b. altman, orbachs, gimbels, and chock full. date nut sandwich was breakfast each am on way to classes at FIT.

  9. Seth E. Morgan Says:

    There is still one Chock Full O’Nuts cafe in the Five Boroughs. 1611 Avenue M, Brooklyn.

  10. Buzz Says:

    When I got my first job in New York in the mid-seventies, I would get sent to Chock Full o’Nuts to pick up “coffee regular” and a cruller for my supervisor. (He would tell me that I should something for myself, too, but I was too shy to take him up on it.). I remember the chain being fairly ubiquitous at the time.

  11. Shaun Hervey Says:

    Love the commercial. I can’t believe they made something like that in 1980.

  12. David H Lippman Says:

    I remember the Chock Full O’Nuts ads, but their greatest contribution to New York was the hiring of Jackie Robinson as vice president of personnel after he retired from baseball.

    Actually, he retired from baseball to take the position, which made him the first corporate vice president in American history. He used the position to advance blacks in commerce and industry.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      According to the founder’s obituary in the New York Times, the company made a point of hiring so many African American employees, they were the target of reverse discrimination claims:

  13. Ray Laskowitz Says:

    Nut shops, huh?

  14. Kevin Says:

    One of the last corporate actions William Black had to deal with prior to his death was fight off corporate raiders. Also, his wife was the woman that sung the song in the original commercials. At my first job in the early 80’s, we would take turns going to the location on Madison between 48th & 49th for our afternoon coffee. We would joke that the chain was named after the people who hung out there; as it seemed the place was “Chock full of Nuts”….

  15. greg chown Says:

    I certainly miss the days when you went in to a coffee shop/diner and ordered a “regular” coffee and were in and out in a couple of minutes and on your way…we had things to do, like go to work!
    I wonder if people today realize how much time is wasted standing in line, ordering, deciding on sprinkles, waiting and then to top it off, paying with a debit card!
    I know I’m living in the past but I generally never go in to those places and if I do I just order drip coffee.

    • Tom B Says:

      So true. Also they take their unique concoction to a booth and spend the next 2 hours looking at the cell phone or notepad wearing earbuds.

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