It was on a June day in 1998 that Bonnie Brosious, then marketing director of the Allentown Fair, got a shock that she still remembers to this day. “It was a reporter from the Morning Call saying there had been a fire at the Ritz Restaurant and did I have any pictures,’ she recalls. Brosious was stunned. This was the first she was hearing about the fire. “My office was just behind the Ritz. My first thought was that it and all my files had gone up in smoke,” she recalls. “I remember telling the reporter she could have one if they hadn’t all been burned.”
Later Brosious would find out that her office was OK, but the Ritz Barbecue had indeed been seriously burned. An electrical fire destroyed much of the building’s second floor with much of the first floor suffering heavy water damage. The chief victim was the ice cream machine that turned out its trademark dessert. “The machine was under six feet of water,” said Grace Stinner, who, with her husband Jeff have owned the Ritz since 1981. “It worked for a few months after that but then a part broke. It was a 1950s machine and we couldn’t get parts for it.”
But it turned out the Ritz still had some time left, 22 years in fact. But what it could not defeat was a pandemic. As businesses from Wall Street to Main Street began closing their doors, eating places were among the first to feel the effect of a nation in lockdown. And so the Stinners made the painful decision to close the Ritz permanently. A 92-year-old institution that had been a part of the community since people drank bootleg booze and danced the Charleston was gone.
Say the “Ritz” to many people and they will think of an exclusive hotel in Paris that in its storied past played host to the famous, like fashion designer Coco Channel and author Ernest Hemingway, or the infamous like Nazi generals who, when they invaded France in 1940, called the Ritz’s desk ahead for reservations. But say the Ritz in Allentown and an ice cream cone is more likely to come to mind. It began with an enterprising fellow named William “Billy” Ritz. He started out as a concessionaire, selling candy at the Allentown Fair and on the carnival circuit. In those days, the Allentown Fairgrounds were green with grass and trees, men wore suits and ties, and women wore flowing summer dresses.
No one seems to be quite sure as to when Ritz came up with an idea to a have a permanent space at the fairgrounds. What is known is that in 1929 he went to the board of the Lehigh County Agricultural Society and asked if he could have a permanent space at the fairgrounds. When he got permission, Ritz began by selling oyster and roast beef sandwiches. A small frame building, it was the first permanent eating space at the fair.
A lot of places went under during the Depression, but the Ritz seemed to thrive. His grandson, the late William Ritz, who later lived with his family in the upper floors of the Ritz, recalled that during the fair people would get off the trolley at 17th and Chew and form a line that stretched from the Ritz’s ice cream stand all the way out to Chew Street. “I can recall my grandfather looking out at the long line. He knew things were going well when he told the staff he couldn’t see Chew Street,” his grandson recalled. It was in 1937 that a two-story brick structure replaced the original frame building. Further changes took place in 1942 when a 16-foot addition was added.
Along with the sandwiches of shredded beef, pork, turkey, and ham barbecues was homemade ice cream. An ice cream cone was among the first thing people purchased at the fair. But for many people the Ritz was about more than just the food. It quickly became a spot for young teenage couples to date. What could be better after a movie than taking in something to eat at the Ritz? In 1998 following the fire, the Morning Call interviewed a number of people who came forward saying they met their future spouse over an ice cream soda or a barbeque sandwich there.
Sometime in the 1950s Billy Ritz decided that although he loved his business it was time to retire. It was taken over by John Hessinger and Roy Minninger of H&M Concessionaires. “In those days they ran all the concessions at the fair,” recalls Brosious. In 1965 the Ritz was operated by Thomas Heeps. In 1981 the Stinners took over.
Asked what they would do in the future in retirement, Grace Stinner said, “My husband will probably mow the grass and I’ll probably paint.”