The layer cakes on the countertop. The vintage milkshake machine. The bow-tied waiters. Yes, this is the legendary Schnackenberg’s—with some subtle changes. To spot them is sort of like spotting the monkey in the rainforest in that classic children’s game.
How do you maintain the charm of an iconic luncheonette while meeting the needs of the contemporary customer? That was the challenge facing Eugene and Joyce Flinn, who bought what’s known as Schnackie’s in 2012 and reopened it for business in December 2013.
“We were conscious of wanting to do a respectful renovation,” says Joyce. “We wanted to keep the flavor of Schnackenberg’s because it would be silly to fritter away an 81-year-old Hoboken institution. It’s an iconic part of so many people’s childhoods. We wanted to preserve as much as possible, but we didn’t want to be frozen in time.”
To wit: The original cash register is on display, but today that job is done by computer. The milkshake machine is new but looks old. The seltzer machines are original but refurbished. A vintage radio dates to the early 1900s. The Formica countertop was replaced with longer-lasting marble. The old tiled floor is original but repointed. The louvered back windows were replaced to bring in more light. The front window that bears the Schnackenberg name has been preserved, but the rest of the window has been replaced. The original Coca-Cola sign that hangs out front was given a new coat of paint. The swivel stools were retained but the chrome cleaned and the seats reupholstered. The booths were refinished except for one which had initials carved into it. There is modern air conditioning and contemporary appliances in the basement kitchen.
Original pieces that are not on display or being used in the restaurant have been donated to the Hoboken Historical Museum.
Historic preservation is a subtle and sometimes counterintuitive enterprise. Paul Somerville, a member of Hoboken’s Historic Preservation Commission, says, “Additions and alterations to a historic site must represent their own time, and must not be a false representation of an earlier era.”
This stipulation made for some interesting renovation decisions. The Flinns, who also own the Elysian Café and Amanda’s, wanted to bring back the look of Schnack’s 1931 façade. “During the 1950s there was a bastardization of the beautiful façade of the ’30s,” Joyce says. “But the Historic Commission said we could not revert to 1931.” It may seem weird to the uninitiated, but they had to cleave to the 1950s look because that lasted longer—some six decades—as opposed to the two decades of the ’30s look.
The food is just as much of a historic-preservation exercise as the store itself. Hamburgers, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, BLTs, tomato soup, egg salad, chicken pot pie, and ice cream sodas are all on the menu. But it would be hard to attract and keep 21st century customers without “giving a nod to the way people eat,” Joyce says. “We have gluten-free breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and vegan options.”
They have something called eggs-tzel—herbed scrambled eggs with a pretzel crust—and mascarpone-filled doughnuts, which were definitely not on the original menu. Another thing you won’t see is the old “diet plate” with iceberg lettuce, cottage cheese, a pineapple ring, and a maraschino cherry. “That’s punishment food,” Joyce says. “We’re not being true to the old menu just for the sake of it.”
Schnacks was and still is famous for its candy counter, and Mark Novak, grandson of the original owners, still helps out with the chocolate-making.
And what about our nation’s most essential beverage? “Coffee is important in a coffee shop,” Joyce acknowledges. “We have good coffee. People like espressos and cappuccinos, but no triple latte macchiatos. We’re not Starbucks.”
Which brings us to one of the most important aspects of the new Schnack’s: ambience. “People from all walks of life sit at the lunch counter over a grilled cheese and tomato soup, and talk to their neighbor and share stories,” Joyce says. “We don’t want people sitting in a booth with a laptop and headphones. There’s no Wi-Fi. Conversation is as much a part of the menu as any food item.”—Kate Rounds