The Red Apple Rest opened in 1931, in Southfields, N.Y., and quickly became a place where people stopped to fill up their cars and their stomachs on the way to the hotels and bungalow colonies in the Catskills. It survived economic downturns, competing businesses, and the new highways that lured drivers away. By the time the restaurant closed its doors in 1984, it had become a legend for generations of diners. In her new memoir, Elaine Freed Lindenblatt, daughter of Big Apple’s founder Reuben Freed, shares her memories of the restaurant’s rise and fall.
By 1955, after nearly a quarter-century of operation, the restaurant had developed into an over a million-customer-a-year motorists’ mecca. It served perhaps twenty thousand people on a Sunday in peak season. During the weeks that the bungalows opened and New York City schools dismissed for the summer, one could barely get inside the door, let alone reach the counter to order or find a seat.
That year the New York State Thruway opened its fourteen-mile Hillburn-to-Harriman section, in the process destroying our high school baseball field in Tuxedo. Thousands of travelers to the mountains eagerly availed themselves of this sixty-mile-an-hour alternative to Route 17’s bumper-to-bumper purgatory. Many predicted an end to all the eateries that had blossomed in the road’s heyday, and by the end of the decade several did disappear: Orseck’s, across the road and our most immediate competitor; the Capitol Restaurant and Miller’s 999, both in Chester; and Shorty’s in Harriman. But Daddy wasn’t going to let a little thing—okay, a big thing—like another road do him in.
In the immediate post-Thruway period, sales fell to about one-half. However, the novelty of this new route wore off. “Sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler,” as Robert Frost puts it in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” summed up the ambivalence of drivers. Disenchanted with the monotonously sterile superhighway, not to mention its tolls, many missed the variety of services offered by Route 17—in food, fuel, lodgings, points of interest—and with the widening and improving of the road, chose to return. The intangible pull of nostalgia, too, wherein the Red Apple was tied to happy family outings, certainly had a role in that decision. People were loyal to their fondest memories.
With the transfer of some scheduled bus and hackie trade to the Thruway, the clientele shifted. Whereas pre-Thruway huge numbers of customers were on a short rest stop from a bus and ate accordingly, now the emphasis returned to what we always considered our mainstay: travelers in private cars who dictated to themselves how long they’d stop and how much they’d eat. Gone were the astronomical numbers of the early 1950s, like four tons of potatoes—four tons—to peel, put through the slicer, keep moist until they hit the bubbling oil of the French fryer—used in one July week. On the other hand, our reliable across-the-board menu, established from the beginning, served us better than ever. “The Red Apple was truly a wonderful place,” said Richard Ibsen. “It was our last resort for coffee and something to eat after a night of partying in Greenwood Lake. I always said the worst thing that happened was the New York Thruway, because it messed up Rockland and Orange Counties the way I remembered and liked them.”
To the staff—who manned the counters, the kitchen, the stand, the registers—this curtailment was not so apparent. We were plenty busy—the difference was that now we could handle the traffic without a constantly frenetic overflow. If there were still lines, they were workable ones that didn’t encircle the building. We served fewer people, but served them better. “I used to be running a nut house,” Herbie told a reporter. “Now I’m running a restaurant.”
The first-time traveler who somehow did not know what to expect may have been shocked at what he believed was a mirage about halfway up Route 17. In actuality, it was not mirage at all; it was an oasis known as the Red Apple Rest.
—Aubrey Sher, The Borscht Belt Remembered
But what if people weren’t able to find this oasis? Or drove right past without recognizing the place? These fears of Daddy’s were far-fetched, considering we sat next to what was a two-lane highway for many years—so where could a car take the wrong turn? And the building, with its circus-striped awning, was not exactly an optical illusion.
Nonetheless, he created a network of roadside billboards to guide people to our door. He didn’t consider these signs advertising, which was done by word of mouth, but primarily directional tools. Each location was carefully thought out for visibility and optimal impact.
Missing us—intentionally or not—did become a possibility with the advent of the Thruway, offering motorists the option to bypass our stretch of “the old road.” So the ten-mile sign in Mahwah, New Jersey, close by the Thruway entrance, was now pivotal, entreating cars to remain on Route 17. Mahwah was also the site of the huge Ford Motor plant, many of whose employees commuted past the restaurant and were our customers.
Going north, next came the seven-mile sign outside the Suffern, the four-mile sign south of Tuxedo at the Rockland Country-Orange County border, the two-mile, the one-mile, the “500-feet-to” at the crest of the hill … and then the “200-feet-back” should anyone in a coma have missed the place. “It was so exciting to see the first Red Apple sign and know that I’d soon be tasting those delicious hot dogs!” said Teresa Fegarsky, remembering her family’s annual summer trips to the Catskills from their stifling Hoboken, New Jersey, tenement. Here’s Arthur Tanney’s take on the oasis motif, in Bungalow Life: “Odds are that if Moses had chanced upon a ‘Red Apple’ on his desert wanderings, he’d have quickly erected a few dozen shacks, a camp-house, and a casino, and not bothered continuing any further.”
Reproduced with permission from Stop at the Red Apple: The Restaurant on Route 17, by Elaine Freed Lindenblatt, the State University of New York Press ©2014, State University of New York. All rights reserved.
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