West Side Story: New York’s Chocolate District

runkel-niagara-falls-1901

The Runkel Brothers slowly expanded uptown and opened a factory that occupied West 30th Street for nearly five decades into the 1930s.

 

Throughout much of the 1800s, the city’s chocolate manufacturers remained clustered in lower Manhattan – the neighborhoods we would eventually call the Financial District, TriBeCa, SoHo, and the Lower East Side. The familiar grid of numbered streets and avenues was plotted in the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811; as those large raw blocks were filled in, new commercial and industrial districts took shape in the decades to follow.

The west side – the 20s and 30s bounded by Sixth Avenue and the Hudson River would become home to several chocolate factories. The first to open in the neighborhood was likely Maillard in the 1870s – he opened a factory in Long Island City before moving to 401 Broadway and 158 Mercer Street in lower Manhattan in the 1840s to 1850s. By that time large parts of Chelsea also comprised what was dubbed ‘The Tenderloin’ – a dense district of saloons, dance halls, brothels, and ‘clip joints’ – considered to be perhaps the most crime-ridden neighborhood in the country. Contemporary accounts do record the necessity for night watchmen in the factory at 116 West 25th Street to prevent petty vandalism and break-ins.

Louis and Herman Runkel began making chocolate downtown at 9 Maiden Lane in the 1870s and eventually moved to the area – first to 328 Seventh Avenue at 28th Street, and then to their longtime home at 445 West 30th Street. Before moving to Brooklyn, Frederick Bischoff opened his first factory at 227 West 29th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in the 1890s. Also servicing the local confectionery business, Chris Abele manufactured and sold chocolate and candy-making equipment at 235 West 27th Street.

NEW YORK’S lights and noises are far better known to country cousins in neighboring and distant States than are its assorted aromas. The smells of a mighty metropolis are, however. as expressive of its personality and pursuits as are its illumination and its sounds…

…What is perhaps the sweetest and most intriguing scent in all the city is that which permeates West Thirty First Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, where factories devoted to the delectable occupation of manufacturing chocolate bars, with almonds and without, are situated. The chocolate aroma did not win its place without struggle for the engines that haul and shunt freight cars on Tenth Avenue give off a gassy, sooty smell that makes an acrid plea for recognition. . .

The man who keeps the little candy shop on the Avenue near Thirtieth Street maintains that the chocolate scent is a stronger sales promotor [sic] for his business than a ten-foot high electric sign would be. “Even some of the brakemen on the trains,” he said, “get a whiff off sweet chocolate from the factories and come to my store to buy the finished product.”

The City’s Aromas, New York Times, January 9, 1927

The neighborhood’s chocolate industry peaked in the early 20th century. Claude Poyet operated a large factory at 454 Tenth Avenue at West 35th Street; nearly 300 employees worked 60-hour weeks at the plant according to 1898 labor reports. A few blocks south, Knickerbocker Chocolate (previously known as the J.H. Barker Co. at 328 Cherry Street in the 1890s) opened their five-story factory at 455 West 31st Street in the early 1900s and operated through the 1920s. Further north, the Auerbach Chocolate factory, active through the 1930s, still stands at 636 Eleventh Avenue and is now home of the high-profile advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather.

And for a short time in the 1920s, Hershey maintained limited chocolate manufacturing in the city, leasing space in the former J.N. Adam department store at 675 Sixth Avenue, between West 21st and 22nd Streets. The factory comprised six floors, equipped with roasters and other machinery built by Jabez Burns and Sons, also located in this unofficial ‘chocolate district’, at West 43rd Street and Eleventh Avenue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s