Mention the name Gruning’s, and North Jerseyans of a certain age will exude wistful sighs. They will speak rhapsodically of the darkest, thickest hot fudge in history cascading over scoops of legendary flavors like peach, strawberry, mint chip and a vanilla bound for Valhalla.
Anyone who knew the pleasure of a Gruning’s sundae—hot fudge or wet walnuts, always a tough choice—should be grateful that 16-year-old Wilhelm August Grüning arrived in New York from his native Germany in 1902. Becoming William and dropping the umlaut, he and a partner started a business making cake cones. By 1914, Gruning and another partner had opened a confectionery in Harlem, down 125th Street from what would become the Apollo Theater.
Fortunately for us, in 1923 Gruning and his partner bought an ice cream parlor in the Roseville section of Newark that became the first Gruning’s. In 1925, they converted another, in South Orange village, into what became the Gruning’s flagship. The partner downshifted to manager; later his son came aboard and stayed for years. Gruning treated his workers well and even built a vacation house in Lavallette for their use.
The business grew to seven locations, adding Montclair, Caldwell, Plainfield, Short Hills and a famed hilltop location in Maplewood. Gruning outfitted his people’s palaces with red leather booths, murals and mirrors, glass cases filled with handmade chocolates and granite counters with spinning stools attended by men in white uniforms with dark neckties. A luncheonette-style menu was served at all locations.
“William loved people,” says his niece, Marilyn Schnaars. He delighted in greeting children, whom employees happily fussed over. Teenagers turned their tables into clubs bubbling with giggles and gossip. Families slid into booths as if into royal carriages. Maplewood, called “At the Top” for its scenic perch, was rustic. Its back dining room had picture windows and a porch with a vertiginous view of the valley below. On a clear day, you could see the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
In its heyday, roughly the ’40s through the ’70s, Gruning’s was an empire built on ice cream and hot fudge. William and his brother-in-law, Henry Schnaars, for many years the head ice cream maker, cut no corners. From walnuts for the wet-walnut topping to Van Houten’s Cacao Rona from Holland for the hot fudge, every ingredient was premium. In peach season, they bought peaches from Georgia, pitted them and cooked them down to make the peach ice cream. Gruning’s ice cream was 16 percent butterfat, a level virtually unknown in the commercial market until Häagen Dazs came along in 1960.
In the early 1950s, William’s older son, Herman, a Princeton grad, left his position at the venerable New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell to join Gruning’s. This freed his father to winter in Florida, playing golf. William kept tabs on things, never fully retiring. He died in 1966 at age 83 while visiting relatives in Germany.
Herman soldiered on, selling the last of the shops in 1984. “At the Top” was replaced in 1989 by high-rise condos called the Top. Herman, 98 and lucid, still lives at home in Maplewood. His granddaughter, Amanda Hembree, 48, like every member of the family, still uses the German pronounciation, grooning.
“I don’t think I ever ate a piece of actual cake until I went to college,” she says. “Because every cake was always an ice cream cake. Every birthday party growing up, we went to South Orange and got our own ice cream in the back, and the candy dipper let me sit on her lap and dip my own caramels.”
Back in 1984, partners led by Jack Harkavy, a Caldwell real estate broker, bought the shuttered South Orange restaurant and the ice cream factory behind it. They reopened the flagship in 1985, using the ingredients and recipes that had made Gruning’s famous. In 1990, they sold the property to new owners, who closed the business in 1991, ending the Gruning’s era.
Well, almost. “When we closed, we donated several tons of ice cream to the food bank,” says Harkavy, 76. “We sold all the equipment, except for a few things I kept for myself.” These included the bowl-shaped copper pots used to make the hot fudge. Armed with the pots, Harkavy, who lives in Caldwell, licensed a commercial kitchen to follow the fudge recipe that had been in use since at least 1985.
“People have been trying to make it for years,” Harkavy says. “But it’s the ingredients—which are very expensive, especially the cocoa—and it’s how you cook it. That’s as far as I’m going.”
Though the fudge lives, it lives under another name—Original 1910 Fudge Sauce—since Harkavy has lost rights to the Gruning’s name. He sells it online at original1910fudgesauce.com for $15 a pint. Additional research by the Durand-Hedden House & Garden Association of Maplewood.