Walk down the coffee aisle at your local grocery store and you’ll see a lot of options. You may see something like the above; it’s a somewhat-representative photo I found via a Google Image search. There’s Maxwell House, Folgers, some other brands I haven’t heard of, and over on the right there, Chock full o’Nuts.
“Chock full o’Nuts” is a weird name for a coffee brand, and no, I’m not talking about the odd choice to have a lower-case “f” or to totally omit the second “f” and instead replace it with an apostrophe. It’s a weird name for a coffee because while nutty coffees like a hazelnut blend may be good on occasion, that’s probably not what you want to lead with. But more to the point, it’s a weird name because Chock full o’Nuts isn’t chock full of nuts at all. If anything, the opposite is true. There are no nuts — none! — in Chock full o’Nuts.
But that’s okay! Because there’s a very good reason behind the really misleading name.
Chock full o’Nuts got its start in 1926, when its founder, William Black, opened up a small shop in Manhattan’s Times Square district. Like now, Times Square was frequented by a lot of theatergoers, and they probably liked snacks. So Black decided to focus his business on a single item: nuts. Back then, the store’s name, Chock full o’Nuts, accurately described to a passerby what was for sale inside. And it proved popular. Within a few years, Black had opened up a dozen or so more locations around the city. He expanded his menu to include sandwiches, including a signature offering — cream cheese and chopped nuts on raisin bread, served with a cup of coffee for five cents.
Business was good — until the Great Depression kicked in. Nuts, particularly shelled and/or roasted nuts, aren’t cheap relative to other food options, and Chock full o’Nuts found it difficult to sell its namesake product. But business was still okay, as customers were still buying sandwiches and coffee. All those nut roasters could be put to a new use — roasting coffee beans. In 1932, per the company’s website, Black “converted his chain of 18 nut shops into small coffee shops.” These proved popular in New York City, and Chock full o’Nuts became synonymous there with good coffee. And in the 1950s, Chock full o’Nuts expanded beyond the city limits, joining Folgers et al with their own product on grocery store shelves.
Over time, the company’s retail footprint disappeared, leaving behind a misnamed product which still sells rather well. That said, the name causes problems, especially outside the New York City area. In 2017, Dennis Crawford, a marketing manager for Chock full o’Nuts, told the New York Times that “every time we’ve done consumer research on why some people do not purchase the product, the No. 1 thing that comes back to us is there’s something in the coffee. Most of the people in New York — we’ve been there forever and they get it, but if you’re in Omaha and suddenly we’re on the shelf and you see the brand for the first time, there’s confusion.” But the company really likes its brand, so they keep it as-is — and add a really big “NO NUTS” message on the packaging.
From the Archives: The Swedish Coffee (and Tea) Experiment: It was chock full of twins (and questionable ethics, to say the least).