How The Great Depression Influenced Chock Full o'Nuts To Roast Coffee Beans

Have you ever heard the phrase "fat times and lean" about financial status? The connection between this innocuous witticism and the food scene of the Great Depression couldn't be more on-the-nose. The infamous epoch (1929-1939) birthed such utilitarian culinary innovations as banana bread and the minestrone-esque "Hoover Stew." But, in an unlikely turn of events, it also paved the way for enduring food-related businesses like Chock full o'Nuts.

Before it was coffee, Chock full 'Nuts was a New York City nut-roasting shop. The first store was opened by William Black on 43rd and Broadway in 1926. The establishment wouldn't switch to roasting coffee beans until 1932, signaling the birth of roasted coffee shops in NYC and serving as a symbol of the city's Jewish historical connection. Like the iconic institution that is the New York Jewish deli, Black (formerly William Schwartz, the Yiddish word for black) was a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant who used to operate an on-foot peanut cart on the streets of New York during the 1920s.

It turned out that the opening of his physical storefront came at an inopportune moment. Roasted nuts were a luxury item, and when the Great Depression hit, foodies' discretionary spending went out the window. To stay relevant (and in business), Black had to find a way to cater to the everyday staples that average consumers could still afford to buy: Coffee and a sandwich. Luckily, the transition from roasting nuts to roasting coffee beans proved minimal and highly successful.

The unwitting backbone of the city

The 20th-century coffee shop quickly became a daily mainstay for foodies on a budget, particularly young artists, who inhabited New York en masse then as now. For 15 cents in 1940, the young and hungry could sit down at Chock full o'Nuts for a date-nut sandwich (10 cents) and a cup of coffee (5 cents).

Menu items included lemon cream pie, whole wheat donuts, and pea soup. But, its most enduring offerings were its two sandwiches: Tangy cream cheese between two pieces of date-nut dotted bread, or the "nutted cheese" sandwich with cream cheese and chopped walnuts between cinnamon raisin bread. Sounds a little light? They were. But, these sandwiches could be made and sold for very little money, and the dense, nutritious bread literally kept folks alive. Bread and butter was even a regular lunch in the White House during the Great Depression as the nation's leaders dined in solidarity with its struggling people. NYC Chock full o'Nuts counters sustained artists from beat poet Diane di Prima to Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall.

For years, these short-order luncheonettes served comforting house-roasted coffee and unpretentious fare to thousands of New Yorkers at its dozens of locations daily. Even the coffee's branding was a nod to its affordability and popularity among less wealthy folks. Its slogan of "That Heavenly Coffee" came accompanied by the iconic 1950s jingle "the coffee of millionaires, money can't buy."

Chock full o'History and looking toward the future

Chock full o'Nuts was a New York exclusive until it expanded to grocery stores in 1953. Despite the national embarkation, it remained a local favorite, and by 1955, Chock full o'Nuts was the number-one coffee in New York City. The Instant Coffee version quickly followed in 1961.

By the 1980s, all the lunch counter locations had shuttered, and it's unclear exactly why. Founder Black passed away in 1983, and the company was bought by Sara Lee in 1999 and Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA in 2005. Following an unsuccessful start to an ambitious 15-year comeback plan in 2010 (and the closure of a relaunched location on 23rd street with salmon on the menu), it looks like the legacy of Chock full o'Nuts truly is its coffee over its nuts, or any other food. But, modern foodies with a flair for the nostalgic can enjoy a steaming cup of Chock full o'Nuts coffee and a date-nut sandwich made at home.

Today, the coffee is available in its signature yellow tins at a variety of retailers nationwide. The can has since gotten a makeover to include the New York skyline and a "100% coffee, no nuts" label. As the new can reads, "1920s: We sold nuts. 1930s: We sold nuts and coffee. Now: We don't sell nuts. We just sell coffee."