This is part of a series about Hoboken that will run twice a month in the Current and the Hoboken Reporter. It will feature long-established family owned and operated businesses that add to the charm of our fair city.
With its timeworn antique Coke sign hanging out front, ’50s-style lunch counter, and handcrafted mahogany benches, Schnackenberg’s Luncheonette, at 1110 Washington St., is an anachronistic slice of Hoboken history straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
In the past 75 years, the mile-square city has seen its share of change, but Schnackenberg’s looks essentially the same as when it opened in 1931. Really the only thing that has changed over the years is that the clientele has aged a bit, said Betty Silvani, 70. With her sister Dorothy Schnackenberg, Betty has worked the counter for more than half a century serving fountain drinks, sandwiches, and handmade candy.
The modest luncheonette was opened during the Great Depression by Silvani’s parents, Dora and Henry Schnackenberg, two German immigrants. At a time when people were standing in bread lines, Dora and Henry decided to try their hand at the restaurant business.
“People told my father that he would never make it, seeing it was the middle of the Depression,” Betty Silvani said. “But he decided to make a go of it, and we’re still around today.”
A teenage hangout, pre-TV
Silvani said that when she was growing up, the luncheonette was a hangout for teenagers. She said that in the days before television, all of the teenagers would sit in the ice cream parlors. The girls would dress in their best clothes, hoping to meet boys.
While attending Public School No. 6, which today is the Wallace Primary School, she remembers vividly having to walk to the store to work during her lunch break.
“We grew up [at the Luncheonette],” Silvani said. “We would come home for lunch, quickly eat some food, and then everyone would have chores to do. I couldn’t go back to school until all the dishes were dried.”
Nowadays, the teenage clientele has been replaced with senior citizens, but the same friendly and social atmosphere remains. “I still like to see all of the people that come in,” Silvani said. “That’s what makes it worth it.”
100-year-old cash register
Beside the lunch counter, the luncheonette’s most striking feature is two rows of dark stained and handcrafted mahogany benches in the dining area. Silvani said that her parents bought all of the benches for about $200 over 50 years ago.
“You couldn’t believe how cheap everything was, but then again, everything was cheap back then,” Silvani said. Even the restaurant’s mechanically operated cash register is over 100 years old, and still functions perfectly. “It works better than the modern ones,” Silvani said. “And if there is an electrical outage, we’re going to be the only ones who can still make change.”
Even though the soda shop is now surrounded by fancy new boutiques and million-dollar condos, Schnackenberg’s has bucked the trend of inflation.
Over one of the dinning room’s benches is a poster from 1942 that lists the luncheonette’s “ceiling prices.” During wartime, it was illegal to price gauge, so restaurants had to list how much they could charge for their products. In Schnackenberg’s case, that was 30 cents for a ham and cheese sandwich and 15 cents for a milkshake.
What’s most amazing is that prices today aren’t all that much more. Patrons can still get a cheeseburger for $2.10, or a chocolate, vanilla or strawberry milkshake for $1.50.
Silvani said that the current low prices are a throwback to Hoboken’s harder days. In the 1960s and 1970s, the industrial lifeblood of the city for the most part moved out or closed. The invention of containerized shipping required bigger cargo ships than Hoboken’s ports could host. Seemingly overnight, Hoboken’s once thriving docks became obsolete. Poverty and unemployment became rampant as the city fell into disrepair.
“During the ’50s, our prices were about the same as everyone else’s,” Silvani said. “But in the ’60s and ’70s Hoboken had some very bad times.”
She said that they had the option of either moving away or keeping their prices low. They decided to keep their prices affordable for those that remained in Hoboken.
“We never really caught back up,” Betty said. “You can still come in here and know you’re not going to get robbed.”
But Silvani said that what she is most proud of is that her customers over the decades have become her friends. “I still like coming to work,” Silvani said. “My goal was to reach 75 years [in business], and I’m so proud that we’ve done that.”