WILLISTON PARK, NY -- As the 1920s roared, Henry Hildebrandt opened a luncheonette and ice cream parlor in Williston Park, New York. It was a time when stores like Hildebrandt's were the heartbeats of American downtowns.
But slowly, they went away, so many that by the early 21st century, Hildebrandt's was among the last of its kind. The Long Island restaurant was so unique that it became a darling on Instagram, its storefront hailed as one of the most beautiful in America.
And then, Hildebrandt's almost became a statistic, a memory just like all the others that were missed and mourned. In 2020, a new landlord hiked rents, and the family running the place since 1974 put up the white flag - Hildebrandt's would close unless a miracle happened.
Well, a miracle happened this year, on Super Bowl Sunday. The Los Angeles Rams were not the only winners that night.
That's when Randy Sarf and his father walked in for some ice cream. Sarf was a regular at Hildebrandt's - it was the place to go growing up - and when the owner at the time, Bryan Acosta, confirmed to him that the ice cream parlor was doomed, Sarf decided right then and there: "We're going to save the place."
And he put his money where his mouth is, he said, buying two plush tigers that the shop was selling - appropriately, the Cincinnati Bengals were the other team playing that night - for $1,000.
That was only Sarf's kickoff. He soon brought in his cousin, Spencer Singer, and they bought the place in a 10-year deal to build a business that will thrive for another century at least. With Sarf's business chops and Singer's experience in trades, including fashion, they are putting their complementary skills right to work.
"It's a special place for him. And Nassau County and beyond," Singer said of how Sarf and so many others view Hildebrandt's. "When I first stepped back into this place, I knew it right away. I was hooked."
Indeed, they've committed to not simply keeping Hildebrandt's open but to revitalizing it.
Those careful changes will highlight its historical character - like revealing a long-hidden tin ceiling - while making tweaks to the menu but still preserving the classic dishes customers crave, like the cheeseburger.
And they are making sure the crown jewel here gets the shine and spotlight it deserves - the ice cream. It's made on the premises, comes in more than a dozen flavors, and is the foundation for an expansion of Hildebrandt's beyond its almost century-long home.
"We're gonna stay true to what Hildebrandt's is," Singer said. "We see Hildebrandt's not only as this great community staple, we see it as a brand, and we want people to enjoy it from far and wide. So the ice cream is really how we're going to stay around for another 100 years. We want to take the ice cream nationally. We want to wholesale it to local markets, local restaurants and then bring it direct to consumer. Once we renovate, we'll expand with the ice cream."
The place is like a set from a movie set in the 1960s, its vintage charms everywhere. Indeed, it's been just that, appearing in a scene from Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman." It's easy to see why it's popular, and during the Localish shoot the other day, Singer and Sarf were making sure customers were all right, and that service was impeccable, all while sharing their vision for a vibrant Hildebrandt's.
Singer, seated by the front door for the interview, greeted every customer. "Hi ladies, how are you? Any table you'd like," was one of many warm greetings Singer offered to the lunchtime crowd.
Indeed, it's all about family, which extends to the longtime employees, who Sarf ensured stayed on. Even the previous owners remain as the new era at Hildebrandt's begins.
"This place definitely means so much to me and my family," said Hunter Acosta, who had run Hildebrandt's with her dad, Bryan. "We were about a month away from shutting down and then Randy and Spencer just swooped in and saved the day. We know Randy and his family for a very long time. It's really cool to have a family that my family knows take over."
Singer and Sarf say they have a plan and the means, and everyone from neighbors on Long Island to admirers of vintage architecture around the world is rooting for them.
"I was here the other day, and there were four generations at one table," Singer said. "I mean that's crazy, that's wild."
He revealed the recipe for success, and it's short and sweet: "It's family first, it's community, and it's ice cream. It's a new adventure every day."