It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times.
After 78 years, Helmers’ Restaurant opened its doors for the last time on Wednesday, Dec. 31. Opened in 1936, the landmark German eatery at Eleventh and Washington streets had been operated by the local Lueders family since 1949.
Helmers’ provided one of the last links to Hoboken’s rich history of German immigrants. From the Civil War through World War I, Germans were the most prominent ethnic group in Hoboken, which at one point was nicknamed “Little Bremen.” (By 1920, Italians had taken over as the most prominent group.)
The Helmers, the original owners of the restaurant, were part of the German immigrant wave, as were the Lueders, who emigrated from Bremerhaven, Bremen’s port city on the North Sea.
And for years, Helmers’ defined itself by its commitment to preserving a sliver of Hoboken’s Prussian past. “Here's a place where nostalgia is what it used to be,” reads the restaurant’s website.
Now, in the face of continuing changes in the mile-square city and the uptown neighborhood in which Helmers’ is located, the past is giving way.
“A lot of our customer base has either moved out of town or has passed away.”—Greg Lueders
The tastes of Hoboken eaters have migrated away from Helmers’ hearty menu, which featured bacon-wrapped sausage, ham-wrapped chicken, and 32-ounce cowboy steaks, he said.
“Who makes the decision when it comes to a family of where you’re going to eat?” asked Lueders. “It’s usually the woman, and the woman is probably going to choose more of a lighter fare.”
There is also simply more competition. “Back in the forties,” said Lueders, “there were probably only four or five restaurants in Hoboken, true restaurants, and we were one of them. Now all the bars are converted and they all have kitchens and they all have food.”
Helmers’ is too defined by its tradition to create a revamped menu. “You’re going one speed, and you’ve been doing it so long, it’s just so hard to just change it up,” he said.
Own the building
Unlike many businesses departing Hoboken, Helmers’ was not facing an imminent rent hike; the Lueders own the building in which Helmers’ is located.
But Lueders said his family is tired. His mother retired three months ago, and Lueders said he has not had a week off in the eight years he has worked at Helmers’ full-time.
Changing economics were another key component of the decision. “Business isn’t what it used to be, so if we can just rent it out and make more money, it’s not rocket science,” said Lueders.
Lueders said he is in talks with a couple of potential renters, and he expects the space will continue to be a restaurant. Lueders still own the Helmers’ liquor license as well, and expects to sell it with a new restaurant lease.
He knows his property is valuable and is in no rush to make a “rash decision.”
“I don’t know what the future is,” said Lueders. “Basically I’m just trying to do what’s best for my family.”
It is not without sadness that Lueders watched his business come to a close. “I crawled on these floors,” said Lueders. “My father here from when he was 19 years old to the time he retired, so this is an extension of me, of my family.”
Other businesses, other German flavor
That doesn’t mean Hoboken is without German-themed eateries.
In the last ten years, the Hoboken Biergarten opened uptown, and the Old German Bakery opened on lower Washington Street.
Hoboken has also seen other longtime family-owned businesses depart recently. The Von Holland Deli, long a staple of Third Street, closed this year. Workers are adding a new top floor to the building. The owners had only been opening it for lunch in its last years.
Carlo Davis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.