“I didn’t even know you could still get that!” exclaimed a rather fabulous looking tiny woman in a turban and plaid coat. I had ordered a date-nut bread sandwich with cream cheese. We were on line at the Chock Full o’ Nuts kiosk located in my neighborhood Gristede’s.
This supermarket is notable partly for its mysterious principles of organization: spices, for instance, can be found in three different aisles in the store. When I need something that defies obvious shelving classification—liquid smoke, say, or rice noodles—I come here, just to challenge myself. (In those two cases, I failed and ended up having to ask for help. The items were in, respectively, the salad dressing and “International Foods” sections.)
Anyway, I had gone to the Chock Full o’ Nuts to get my usual: the “Chock Classic” sandwich, a bargain at $2.99, so rich and filling that it extends to at least three small meals. (For the uninitiated, the business did start as a nut stand in the twenties. A few years ago, Chock had to add the slogan “NO NUTS! 100% Coffee” to its packaging.) The sandwich was an economical standby on the menus of the restaurant chain, which used to be all over New York, and now serves as a reminder of Chock’s glory days. It was this that caught my neighbor’s eye.
According to Arthur Schwartz’s magisterial tome New York City Food, CFoN wasn’t just notable for its low prices, cleanliness, catchy jingle, and high quality. The stores were also known from the beginning for their integrated staff.
[William] Black, a Jew, who is said to have deeply felt the anti-Semitism of New York City in his youth, was an early activist for racial equality. He focused the public’s attention on this in 1957, when he hired the retiring Brooklyn Dodgers star, Jackie Robinson, who had broken the color barrier in baseball. As head of personal and community relations, Robinson became vice president of the company.
The famous Chock Full o’ Nuts café policy of no tipping stems from Black’s views on equality. He thought tipping was degrading. He preferred to pay a fair wage, and he gave his employees a health plan, which was revolutionary for restaurant workers.
Black, an immigrant, had founded Chock because discrimination kept him from finding work as an engineer. After his success, he became a philanthropist, donating then-record sums toward medical research. The chain was sold after Black’s death, the restaurants closed, and, long story short, Chock now belongs to another company. They brought back small cafés a few years ago, selling coffee and pastries. On the otherwise modern (and somewhat dismal) menu, the sandwich is an anomaly, but it’s worth seeking out as a good-value snack, even if your money is now going to Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA. Oh, and you may now tip.
Once I had confirmed the continued existence of the sandwich to my neighbor on line, we got into an enthusiastic discussion of date-nut bread, the chain (she was a regular in the fifties, when she worked as a secretary in Midtown), and New York generally.
“They’ll have to drag me out in a body bag,” said the woman, Doris. “No one’s getting me to Miami!” Which seemed like an attainable goal, as these things go.
Out of earshot of the teenager who worked there, I mentioned to Doris that I didn’t think the current iteration of Chock was very good.
“Awful, awful!” she agreed cheerfully, eating a cheese Danish with relish. “But everything is different now, right?”
When I got home, I read up a little on Chock Full o’ Nuts, and saw the following on Wikipedia: “The current youngest franchise owner is Corey Torjesen of Staten Island, New York, who opened a Chock Full o’ Nuts franchise at the age of nineteen with his own money, which he saved up from a newspaper route.”
I am, as I write this, eating a Chock Classic.