Gruning’s Ice Cream Parlor Was Hot-Fudge Heaven

For many North Jerseyans of a certain age, Gruning's was the greatest ice cream parlor there ever was.

Staff stood at attention in the flagship Gruning's ice cream parlor in South Orange village some years before the 1946 fire there.
Staff stood at attention in the flagship Gruning's ice cream parlor in South Orange village some years before the 1946 fire there.
Photo courtesy of Marilyn Schnaars

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.

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  1. boomersmom

    was in the south orange one often…the official ‘1st date’ meeting place 🙂

  2. Anne Feeley

    I was hired by Herman to work summers at Grunings in 1963 when I was at Columbia High School in Maplewood. I worked behind the candy counter but on occasion, when one of the lovely, sweet lady chocolate dippers was sick, I was asked to fill in dipping the chocolates. Needless to say, I was a dub. I was relieved of that duty because I couldn’t make the approved signatures on the chocolates. As I remember, “o” for orange cream, two striped bars for caramel nut, “c” for cherry cream “r” for raspeberry cream, etc. There were codes for what delights were inside the scrumptious, perfectly tempered chocolates, My favorites were the pecan turtles. On my first day, my mentor behind the counter told me to go to the candy store room and get some items to fill out the gorgeous display counters in the front of the store. She also told me to sample whatever I wanted because I needed to know what the product was. Alone, in a small, temperature controlled room housing the house treasures, I sampled. And I sampled. And, that was about the last time I ever ate the turtles that Grunings made. I remember it well. The hot fudge made by 1910 is pretty good. But nothing, no – nothing – will ever match the fresh peach ice cream they made. I do remember that Grunings would shut down when the peaches were in season (I think I remember they were New Jersey peaches). Everyone from Mr. Herman, the busboys, the cooks, the servers, and the candy ladies, would be out in the parking lot in back of the factory, peeling and cutting peaches. And the staff would work around the clock to get the first of the season peach ice cream out to the customers who were waiting on the sidewalk on South Orange Avenue for that first taste of peach ice cream heaven. But my most enduring memory is of one young man, a political immigrant from Poland who had already apprenticed as a candy maker in Poland for seven years, and was studying for another four years under Herman Gruning to become a Master Candy Maker. We had lunch everyday together studying and speaking English language so he could become an American citizen. His name was Adam. I lost touch with him. But I hope he is still making candy and making all of us happy. After all, this is the gift immigrants give to us all. Hard work, willingness to succeed, a safe place to raise and educate kids. Thank you all you Grunings. It’s a wonderful memory.

  3. Andrea Milioto

    My parents took us there quite often after ice skating or walking at the Reservation in West Orange. I loved the ice cream. Still a chocolate chip girl. Going there was one of the most special memories I had as a child. Makes me nostalgic for what was yesteryear.

  4. Linda Allison

    Grew up in South Orange and Grunings was a big part of my life. Spent so much time there eating hot fudge sundeas – nothing better. That is where I was introduced to a Dusty Road. Vanilla ice cream, malt powder and hot fudge. To die for. We ate there, hung out there, went on dates there. Just a great place to be. Thank you Grunings family.

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