Hackney's restaurant started in 1912, 100 years ago, as a clam shack. But it grew so big so fast that by 1929, the restaurant had 3,200 seats, and took up a full block of the Atlantic City Boardwalk along Absecon Inlet.
That made it the biggest seafood restaurant in the world in its day - and by some tellings, the biggest restaurant of any kind. Despite that shocking capacity, it also had lines around the block on summer nights.
And partly because of that vast footprint, says Adam Grohman - a great-great-grandson of Harry Hackney, the restaurant's founding visionary, longtime owner and chief promoter - Hackney's became famous well beyond the borders of the World's Famous Playground.
Harry was good at spreading the word about his restaurant in all kinds of ways, adds Grohman, the author of a new book, "Hackney's: The History of the World Famous Seafood Restaurant."
Harry Hackney advertised: "You could open up a newspaper in the Midwest and see a Hackney's ad," Grohman says.
Harry had catch phrases: "Eat Where They Are Caught." "Home of the Purified Lobster." "Famous Garden of Seafood." And "Fishing Out the Window"- all those and more marketing slogans were either on signs in and around the restaurant, or plastered all over the menus.
And those menus, crowded with choices from chicken livers to lobster thermidor, were another advertising vehicle - one that could travel widely. For decades, every one carried a prominent message: "This is your menu. You may take it with you."
"He wanted you to leave it on the trolley, or the jitney, or in a rolling chair on the Boardwalk," says Grohman - who, at age 35, is too young to have ever worked in the family business. "He wanted you to take the menu, and tell your friends about it back home in Illinois."
But Harry also had plenty more ways of spreading the name and Hackney's famed, red-lobster logo.
"Anything he could put that lobster on, he did," says Grohman, including the plates, cocktail glasses, swizzle sticks, sugar packs, pocket protectors, ashtrays, delivery trucks, a sailing yacht (that gave rides to paying customers), and much more. Many places have advertised on match packs, obviously, and Hackney's did too - but Hackney's also had its messages put on individual matches within the packs, as pictures in the book show.
Grohman grew up in Galloway Township, and went from Oakcrest High School to Atlantic Cape Community College, but lives now in Brookville, N.Y., on Long Island. He's a certified scuba divemaster with a passion for historical research - particularly research that lets him combine his underwater adventures with history. His day job makes him an administrator at Long Island University, another alma mater, but also he's in the U.S. Coast Guard reserves, after serving more than two years on active duty, including a tour at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
He took time out from all that the other day to visit his mother, Joyce Hackney Grohman, who still lives in Galloway's Pomona section. And both then came to visit the spot on Maine Avenue where Hackney's started, grew, thrived and suffered - it took massive damage from the legendary storms of 1944 and 1962, but a 1963 fire did even worse by the landmark.
Joyce's father, Edward L. Hackney, wasn't an owner, but he was the manager of the sprawling bar operation at Hackney's for years. Probably its best-known bar was the Miss America Cocktail Lounge - where the signature drink was the Miss America Cocktail that Edward L. is credited with inventing.
(It got that name because it featured "bourbon from Kentucky, apple jack from New Jersey, lemon juice from California, sugar from Louisiana" and more lovely ingredients from more states - all served in a lobster-logoed souvenir glass, of course.)
Wayne Hackney, of Absecon, was the fourth generation and last member of the family to run the restaurant. He remembers that the 1963 fire was on the night of the Miss America Pageant - another Atlantic City institution, which Harry had been a huge supporter of before he died, in 1945.
The restaurant shut down until 1965, when it was reborn as a smaller, more modern building. But by then, Atlantic City was obviously struggling itself - and the Inlet worst of all as it tried desperately to recover from that '62 northeaster.
"The rebuilt one was never that big. If you crunched people in, we had maybe 1,500 seats," says Wayne - who adds just one busy banquet could serve 1,500 at the old restaurant. If they had one of those going on, he says they could squeeze in as many as 3,600 people at one time in the old place, which was actually a series of neighboring buildings Harry bought up and incorporated into Hackney's.
But the demand diminished over the years - as the neighborhood around it did the same.
"As Atlantic City went, so we went," says Wayne, 71, who figures he was in charge for the last 10 or so years of the family's life at the restaurant. Now he's retired from a casino career - he went to work at Resorts Atlantic City after the family sold Hackney's in the mid-1970s.
In the winter during those bad years, "Sometimes you wondered why you bothered to open," he says. "In the summer is when you made your money. ... We would go through, in a busy weekend, thousands of pounds of lobster tails, thousands of pounds of live lobsters. We had people cleaning the fish. ... But you describe it now and people look at you like, 'Yeah, right.'"
Wayne helped with Grohman's book, mainly by giving pictures salvaged by his wife, Dottie, from the 1963 fire - although Grohman acknowledges there was "a little bit of distortion in the printing process" of some pictures in his book. Still, they are amazing documents of the sheer scale of the place at its height:
He shows marketing material claiming Hackney's had "153 cooks at your service" in its open kitchen - just one of HarryHackney's many innovations that are now trends, if not institutions, in the restaurant business. And Hackney's staff pictures on the Boardwalk show an army of white-wearing waitresses that could probably dwarf that number of cooks.
Wayne Hackney took over the business from his father, Ralph, who died in the 1960s. And Ralph had taken over from his father, Edward M. Hackney, who died in 1952, in Miami - where Harry had opened a second restaurant back in Hackney's heyday.
After the family sold out, the new owners kept running a restaurant into the early 1980s. But they gave up and closed it, then sold again in 1993, a year before the new owners made news by announcing plans for a $2 million renovation that would again cut the size of Hackney's in half - down from the 15,000 square feet of the rebuilt, post-1965 incarnation.
But while the restaurant sat empty beside the Boardwalk for years - with tables neatly lined up and covered, looking like it could open again with the simple turn of a key - it never served another meal.
News reports show the rusting steel frame was still there at least into the late 1990s, but when it was torn down, the restaurant once "as famous as the Boardwalk" drew little notice - even among the family that ran it so lovingly for so long.
"I went by one day and it was gone," says Wayne Hackney, who worked maybe a mile or so down the Boardwalk at that point.
Now there's no sign left that Hackney's was ever there - and the section of Boardwalk it dominated is closed to walkers by decades of storm damage and neglect.
But Adam Grohman, the diver, researcher and writer, hopes to try a dive some day where Hackney's stood, to search for any underwater evidence of the glory that was once there.
"Hackney's: The History of the World Famous Seafood Restaurant" is available for $40 and $75 at: lulu.com/adamgrohman. To contact the author, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details, see uhrs.org.
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